As promised a scant two weeks ago, I’m back with my review of Beneath the Twisted Trees, book 4 of Bradley P. Beaulieu’s epic The Song of the Shattered Sands series. Things are definitely heating up.
Çeda is determined to free Sehid-Alaz, the King of the Asirim. Not only would this hopefully free the asirim from bondage to the Kings of Sharakhai, but it is also the right thing to do: Sehid-Alaz is her ancestor, and she owes it to him. To achieve this goal, however, Çeda must find a way to help brave women of the Thirteenth Tribe to bond with asirim. The other protagonists we’ve come to know (even if we don’t love them—looking at you, Ramahd) face new challenges of their own. Emre is politicking when he’s better at fighting; Ramahd and Davud both independently want help from the secretive Enclave of Blood Mages; Brama finds himself torn between helping and once again trying to break free of Rümayesh. The forces of multiple nations around Sharakhai are descending upon the once-secure desert city, and the Kings—both new and old—are at their most precarious. Behind and beyond all of this lurk the new gods, whose schemes after 400 years may be reaching fruition.
Everything is ripe for change, and this comes through so clearly on the pages it’s energizing.
In my previous review, I commented on how Beaulieu manages to keep Çeda’s story central to the plot even as he expands the cast ever more. I still believe this to be true. However, Beneath the Twisted Trees definitely feels like it features more of the other cast members. We see a lot more of Ramahd, Emre, and Davud and their struggles. This isn’t a bad thing—it helps us understand the various forces at work in this world—but if you’ve come to identify with Çeda closely, as I have, it is somewhat of an adjustment. As I noted above, I don’t really like these other characters (Emre is all right, I guess). Ramahd and Davud both strike me as whiny people who keep making a lot of bad decisions. Davud, in particular, doesn’t seem to understand how not to be an overbearing, overprotective dude. Don’t get me wrong—I think this is a sign of great characterization on Beaulieu’s part, that he’s giving us these protagonists who are flawed and unlikable and not particularly heroic. But I don’t like spending time with them the way I like hanging out with Çeda. Just sayin.’
Speaking of characterization, I want to just flag Meryam as an excellent example of a heel turn. She started this series as someone we might have considered a protagonist and has sharply departed from that role, and it is a sight to behold. The fact that we seldom get access to her viewpoint means we’re forced to interpolate what we see from other characters (in contrast to someone like Hamzakiir, whose viewpoint we see in this book so we can understand the struggle that Meryam’s blood magic bondage has precipitated within him). Ramahd’s perception of her is clouded by his lingering love for her and his horror at how she has changed. Other characters see her more at a distance, and it’s so interesting, the way their opinions differ, not just on Meryam but on other prominent cast members. Beaulieu has a knack for showing (rather than telling) us how the main characters are perceived differently by different parties.
With each book, Beaulieu considerably advances the over plot of this series, and this one is no different. The gods are actively getting involved. Previously, we had (kind of) met Nalamae and briefly saw Yerinde talk to the Kings. In this book, those gods return, along with a couple of others. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that Beaulieu makes it clear that the gods have a Plan, and all this chaos in the desert? All according to plan. Now, let’s hope that this Plan is better than the one the Cylons had on Battlestar Galactica, because boy was that a big letdown.
One criticism I have is that it’s often hard to understand the timescale of these novels. When are various events occurring? Is this chapter a day after the previous one? A week? Wait, this next chapter seems to be set before previous chapter? Similarly, when it comes to how long it takes characters to travel various places or accomplish a task, Beaulieu seems to use whatever timescale is appropriate for the plot. I’m not one to insist that an author meticulously calendar every event and make sure everything is internally consistent. But sometimes I need some good signposts, you know? And that seems to be largely missing from this book, so my sense of timing for a lot of the important events feels wonky.
Such is the peril of an epic fantasy series! On to book 5!