It feels like with fantasy these days I am eternally questing after the next fresh idea. Don’t get me wrong—there is sometimes nothing better than a classic, trope-laden fantasy from the late twentieth century to stir my book loins. But every time I pick up a big, heavy book like Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I hope deep down in my heart that it will give me something new, that it will stir up not just passion but a joyous sense of surprise. For the most part, that is what Bradley P. Beaulieu does here. Rather than the standard alternative medieval or feudal European setting, Beaulieu draws on inspiration from numerous cultures to create something that we might describe as quasi–Middle Eastern. That being said, I think there was a lot of care taken not to appropriate Middle Eastern cultures or simply render them into caricature, as many white fantasy authors have done in the past.
Çeda (pronounced “chay-da”) fights in the Pits (think gladiators) for money. When she isn’t doing that, she is single-handedly trying to figure out how to overthrow the 12 immortal Kings of Sharakhai, her city, although she doesn’t seem to be making much headway until the beginning of the story. (I guess that’s why this is the beginning.) Çeda’s mother long opposed the Kings and had some kind of plan to defeat them. Rather than pass this plan on to her daughter, however, Çeda’s mother selfishly decided to protect her daughter and keep her innocent of such matters right up until the point where she was arrested and executed for her treason. So this means that Çeda is anonymous, as far as the Kings are concerned—but she resolves not to keep it that way, for she realizes she is in a unique position to get closer to the Kings and hopefully uncover the history they’ve tried to bury for a thousand years.
That manipulation of history is one of the most compelling elements of this book for me. The Kings have successfully obscured their pasts—each hails from one of the 12 founding tribes, of course, yet no one knows the individual Kings’ backstories. They have woven a mythology that distorts the truth in order to make it impossible for someone like Çeda to uncover what really happened during important events like Beht Ihman, when the Kings made a dark deal with the gods and slaughtered hundreds of innocents. This resonates with me because of how our own governments have practised similar manipulation and propaganda, obscuring or choosing not to discuss or teach about things like colonialism and the assimilation of Indigenous peoples. As much as we decry digital technologies for making such misinformation easier to spread, Beaulieu demonstrates here that an entirely analogue society is no less vulnerable to such attacks of cultural amnesia.
In the same way, I just fucking love that one of Çeda’s primary strategies to arm herself against the Kings is to study and read. There is plenty of combat in this book, don’t you fret—but so often fantasy seems to partition its heroes into fighters and scholars (or mages or clerics or whatever), and even in the latter case, the learning seems to happen off-page so there is more time for ass-kicking. So colour me biased, but when a hero spends her time in a dank room reading ancient texts for like a hundred pages before we go back to the ass-kicking? Oh my, someone bring me the smelling salts, for I do believe I will swoon!
Çeda is an all right protagonist, but she is probably best when acting against foils like Emre. Their strained we-were-once-ride-or-die-but-now-you-ride-with-others relationship is so good and so believable. It’s kind of heartbreaking, watching it happen, watching Emre drift further apart even though that’s partially Çeda’s fault because she’s repeating the mistake her mother made of trying to protect him from her actions … ugh, yes, just that nuance and complexity, the messiness of having people in your life you care about. It’s all on display here.
I also appreciate that Beaulieu mixes foreshadowing with a healthy dose of plot twists. There is plenty about this book that is predictable, such as a revelation around Çeda’s parentage. And the book follows the general arc of the plot it gradually lays out for us—but it meanders, digresses, and feints in ways that are pleasantly diverting. I bristled at the flashbacks at first, and although they grew on me towards the end as they revealed more information, they are still far from my favourite device used in this book. Similarly, as much as I love and believe in the dynamic between main characters like Çeda and Emre, so many of the minor characters in this book feel stock and unbelievable. They aren’t quite cardboard cutouts … it’s more like when you buy a new phone and there’s that plastic film on the screen that you don’t want to rip away just yet because you don’t want to get fingerprints on it? The side characters are like that: they still have that plastic film on them, newly minted as they are, and the story never sees a reason to rip it off and let them grow into themselves. They are too crisp, too sharply-defined versus the messier main characters.
All in all, this was a fun novel and I have already put a hold on book 2 at my library. I am very happy I picked this up after adding it to my to-read list 5 years ago! If you want a fantasy novel with a good original setting, an excellent balance between scholarship and scrapping, and believable main characters, then try out Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.