Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings—cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens, and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.
I read a lot, and I read a lot of different books. I appreciate variety in narrative style as well as plot or subgenre, but one thing that will always make a book memorable to me, as much as any ending, is a really strong beginning. Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings opens with a scene strong enough to take me by the throat and keep hold of me for the rest of the book – and given that we’re talking about 700-plus pages, that is a damned impressive grip.
It opens with a fight scene, which in itself is written well enough to impress – but this also introduces us to Çeda, the protagonist, and with one fight in the pits of Sharakhai, where she’s made a (somewhat anonymous) name for herself, we’re given enough important information about her character to intrigue us, even as we’re being treated to one of the most tightly-written fight scenes I’ve read in a long time. Çeda takes on a man twice her size, chosen by her personally for the bout, for reasons we don’t discover until the fight is over. I won’t give away those reasons here, but they’re a clever way of foretelling much of what comes later. They’re our very first indication of the lengths that this young woman will go to in order to achieve her goals, and in that, neither she nor her writer waste much time.
That said, there is still the matter of 700 pages of story to tell, and when you’re looking at a page count as high as that it is very important not to lose your readers along the way. Çeda’s story unfolds in layers, taking us into her past while it teases her future. The events that got her to this point are as important as anything that happens in present time – and there’s a lot of history in Sharakhai in which to bury important truths. Beaulieu teases them out in a way that kept me hanging on, wanting to know more and never once getting bored, which is exactly what you want with so much story going on. You can tell this was written by someone who’s been down the epic fantasy path before and understands how this needs to work, and he makes it work incredibly well.
And speaking of Sharakhai, I can’t review this book without touching on the amazing worldbuilding work Beaulieu has done. If you’re a reader who appreciates such things, you’ve got a lot to look forward to here. The desert setting, the city of Sharakhai, and the culture, mythology and politics that colour it all make this a book to savour rather than rush through. On that score alone, this stands up as one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.
Now let’s return to Çeda and her mission. She’s young, only nineteen when we meet her, and as you might expect there are a lot of emotions driving her, even when she seems to be using her head – and usually, also when that’s what she should be doing. Add to this the fact that she’s on a mission of vengeance against the eponymous kings of Sharakhai (yes, there are indeed twelve, and yes, that makes rulership interesting to say the least), and you’ve got the age-old recipe for disaster. What makes Çeda such a strong character, however, isn’t her mission or even merely the force of her personality, but just how far both of those things take her and how much determination she displays in persevering. She may be dangerously driven to achieve her goals, but she’ll put no one through the wringer before going through it herself – and good grief, does she ever. Recipe for disaster or not, the depths to which the mystery she needs to unravel go mean that she’s got a lot of pain to endure, physical or otherwise, to get her answers. Such torment has broken characters before. It might still break Çeda, but there’s little doubt left that whatever comes, she’ll take it head-on…
So we have a breathtaking setting, a marvellously twisty plot, more intrigue than you can shake a stick at, and a cleverly drawn, strong protagonist to follow through it all. Epic fantasies with this much to offer are wonderful things in my view, and a high page count need not be a negative point if there’s enough story to merit it. Twelve Kings makes damned good use of it, and I know I’ve found a new series – and a new writer – I’m going to enjoy sticking with. Whatever happens next, if it can top this, is going to be an exciting journey indeed.