Friday, May 19, 2017

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P Beaulieu

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai
by Bradley P Beaulieu

Born in Kenosha Wisconsin in 1968, Mr Beaulieu first started writing in college. However, in his own words “life happened”. He returned to writing with the dawn of the 21st century, starting with short stories; his first titled“A Trade of Shades” appearing in the now defunct bimonthly Alien Skin Magazine (which was actually an E-zine but details). In 2006 his story “In the Eyes of the Empress Cat” was voted a notable story in the Million Writers Award, since then his stories have appeared on number of top 10 lists. Today we'll be reviewing a more recent book of his published in 2015, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.

Mr. Beaulieu takes us to a world dominated by a desert, known as The Great Shangazi Desert. It is ringed in by great mountain range but it dominates the center of a continent and with the mountains presents a dividing barrier between four cultures. If these cultures want to trade with each other in any real volume, they must cross the desert. The desert has it own peoples, divided into great tribes that guard their control of the sands with blades and sharp vigilance. In the center of this desert a city grew from an oasis, a city that came to dominate the trade ways and whose people turned away from the traditions of the tribes. This was upsetting the tribes who lived in the desert, plus as the city grew and became rich, it encouraged more outsiders to travel into the desert. Worst of all, people began to abandon the tribes and their nomadic lifestyle for the wealth and ease of the city. So the tribes gathered in their numbers and decided to destroy the city and be done with it. The rulers of the city found out about this and realizing there was no way they could defeat the tribes in open combat, turned to the gods of the desert and pleaded for help. The gods answered: they took human sacrifices and turned them into the Asirim, twisted, powerful undying creatures who wrecked awful carnage upon the attacking tribes. The rulers of that city became the Twelve Kings, immortal demigods with powers beyond human understanding and complete command of the Asirim. In addition to the Asirim, they have their human soldiers the Silver Spears who also serve as the city's police force and the Blade Maidens. an elite force of fighters and bodyguards.  They are made of the mortal daughters, grand and great-granddaughters of the Kings themselves, trained to the heights of human ability, armed with magical blades and more. Every six weeks on the night of Beht Zha'ir, led by the one of the Kings, the Asirim prowl the city gathering more sacrifices to pay the gods bloody wage. There are those who say it's an honor to be chosen but most hide behind locked doors and pray that the honor fall to someone else. For generations the Kings have ruled this city Sharakhai, the City of Amber, completely and secure in their invincibility. For their rule has been sanctioned by the gods, upheld by the willing sacrifice of their own citizens who were turned into monsters on the holy night of Beht Ihman... Or so the histories all say.

The rule of the Kings is not uncontested however. Within the city and without men and women gather together in a group known as the Moonless Host and they wage a campaign to overthrow and kill the Kings of Sharakhai. That said, it's questionable at best if the Moonless Host is any better then the Kings they fight. Often engaging in outright terrorism that kills more of the common people than any of the elites of the city or in banditry against people who are simply traveling the desert. Their leader a man of the tribes named Macide is a man with the blood of women and children on his hands and frankly won’t be happy until he's pulled down the city and forced it's people to scatter to the four winds. The reaction of the Kings to these attacks is to resort to brutality and collective punishment, often against the very people of the city they claim to rule and protect. This leaves the people of the city caught between a rock and hard place and doing whatever they have to do to survive.

One of these people is our main character, Cedamihn Ahyanesh'ala a woman of many parts and roles. An orphan whose mother was executed for crimes against the Kings, her father unknown. She is a pit fighter who fights behind a mask and the moniker of the White Wolf and runs of licit packages for the ruler of the fight pits. She was also trained from toddlerhood by her mother in how to use a sword and on the night of her mother's death looking up her hanging body swore an impossible oath. That she would hunt down and kill every immortal King of Sharakhai. While she has the skills and she has the talent... She has no idea how to fulfill her oaths and as a orphan who spent most of her time in the streets of the city running wild, she doesn't really have the connections to get at the Kings either. Nor does she really have the tools to pull it off. Even worse she is utterly ignorant of her mother's heritage or just who her father was. For that matter she has no idea what her mother's plan was or what she was trying to accomplish on the night of her death and the people who could tell her have decided not to for her protection. That's a fairly realistic thing, but I have to admit it annoys the piss out of me in real life and fiction. Ignorance is almost never protection and what you do not know, can and will hurt you. Often a lot worse than what you do know about. There are two men whose goals overlap with Cedamihn or Ceda as she prefers.

The first is Emre, another street rat who ran the streets with Ceda. He's been with her since childhood and in a lot of way he and Ceda are more like brother and sister than anything else. He's a charming fellow but doesn't have more to offer than that. Emre is aware of this however and dislikes that about himself and throughout the book we watch him struggle with it and try to rise above himself. Emre is also carrying a lot of anger and loss as members of his family were taken from him and he was forced to confront how corrupt and uncaring the Kings are about the struggles and pain of the common folk. Just what he's gonna do about that corruption and the suffering that it inflicts on him and his loved ones is a question he'll have to take most of the book to work out. Our other character however knows exactly what he's gonna do about his problems if people would just stop getting in his damn way.

Ramahd isn't from Sharakhai, a noble from the nation of Qaimir which lies to the south of the desert. Like Ceda and Emre, Ramahd is on a revenge mission but he's not aiming at the Kings. Two years ago, Ramahd visited Sharakhai on the orders of his king, he did his job and packed up to go home. Only for Macide and the Moonless Host to attack his caravan and rounded up the survivors, forcing the men to kill themselves to buy the lives of the women and children. Each man did so, but one women attacked the Moonless Host rather than allow her husband's death. That woman was Ramahd's wife and to pile tragedy onto loss, Ramahd's only child would die of thirst before they could find their way out of the desert. Because Macide also took all their supplies and told them best of luck. This wasn't just a vile and brutal act... It was also a fairly stupid one. Ramahd's wife was the daughter of the King of Qaimir and he ain't taking it lying down. Not only is Ramahd seeking far and wide for Macide to murder him, but he has access to royal resources to do so and a sister in law who has delved deep and hard into the darkest of magics to pull this off. Whether Ramahd, Ceda, and Emre can all make common cause to achieve their goals or whether they'll all turn on each other and do their enemies work for them is something you'll have to read the book to find out. But let's talk a bit more about the setting.

While of a lot of talented writers (a good number of them reviewed in this review series) have worked hard to push the boundaries and conventions of the genre. Medieval Not-Europe still remains the default setting for fantasy in most people's mind. Although Feudal Not-Japan is often a close second. Mr. Beaulieu avoids both and instead goes into a mystical desert setting that shares some vague similarities with Arabian culture (in that there's some methods of dress that are borrowed but not much more) but for the most parts manages to stand on it's own two feet. It's an interesting setting, full of forbidden magic and dark pacts and fueled by the politics of wealth, power, corruption, oppression and the resentment and rage that those things breed. Each of our characters here would have likely lived lives that were of no danger to the people above them except for the fact that those same people couldn't refrain from indulging their baser instincts. While the story itself is tightly contained in Sharakhai and its immediate surroundings, Mr. Beaulieu is also able to drop information and hints of much wider world beyond the desert sands while keeping us focused on what is going on right here in the story.

That said, the story at times moves in fits and starts and takes a while to get to the point. Part of that is that a good number of the chapters are flashbacks to Ceda's childhood. These flashbacks are thankfully fully marked and noted just where and when they occurred so you're never left guessing just where in the story you are. That said a number of those chapters are somewhat self indulgent and at over 500 pages you are dealing with a story that is in no hurry to get to where it's going. There's also a number of character conflicts that I felt were somewhat unnecessary, in that they could have been avoided if the characters in question had simply talked to each other and explained just what the hell they thought they were doing. Ceda's and Emre's character arcs specifically are full of moments like this. Some of this is Ceda doing this to herself as she not only has to be smartest person in the room but has to do everything her way to the point that I want to shake her until her teeth rattle (I'll admit this would be a bad idea, Ceda would likely rip my arms off for trying).  That does effect my enjoyment of the book. That said it was a good read and I enjoyed it. I'm giving Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P Beaulieu a C+ for it's interesting setting and good, if somewhat pigheaded characters.   

Next week, we return to non-fiction and we look at a show down in the ancient world that affects us to this day. Join us for Mastering the West!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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