You may recall that I gave Bradley P. Beaulieu's The Lays of Anuskaya series glowing reviews, going as far as to claim that it was one of the most interesting fantasy series I had read in the last decade or so. The series was dark, ambitious, complex, and populated with a great cast of characters that leap off the pages. Even for jaded readers looking for a quality read, that book sequence was different from everything else on the market and definitely worth checking out. Looking forward to whatever the author would write next, when I received the ARC of Beaulieu's Twelve Kings in Sharakhai I knew I needed to give it a shot as soon as possible.
Perusing the slew of positive reviews on Goodreads, I realized that the most common denominator regarding most of those reviewers was that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was the first Bradley P. Beaulieu novel they had read. Perhaps due to the fact that they had not experienced the brilliance of The Lays of Anuskaya, they didn't have the lofty expectations that I had coming in. Perhaps this was why they ended up enjoying the book as much as they did. And perhaps, sadly, this is why it took everything I had just to go through this book. Although I really wanted to love this work, I'm sad to report that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai features nothing that made Beaulieu's first trilogy such a memorable work of fantasy. Nothing at all.
About 200 pages into it, not much was happening and I wasn't feeling it at all. I came close to contacting the author and offer him to forgo reading the rest of the novel and not review it, for I didn't want what appeared would be a luke-warm review at best to hurt his sales. But then I recalled that each installment of The Lays of Anuskaya were not what one would call fast-paced affairs, and that I should have enough confidence in the author to know that he could still hit it out of the park if given half a chance. Unfortunately, it was all in vain. Indeed, to a certain extent, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai features all the shortcomings of the previous trilogy, but none of the depth, the great worldbuilding, or the superior characterization.
Here's the blurb:
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 ompany 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.
Although far from perfect, The Winds of Khalakovo, opening volume of The Lays of Anuskaya, featured fantastic worldbuilding. Very Russian and Eastern European in style and tone, Beaulieu demonstrated that he had a great eye for details. That backdrop gave the series a very distinctive vibe and flavor. I'm not sure why, but the author failed to imbue his new desert world with the same sort of depth. Which makes me wonder why so many Goodreads reviews praise the worldbuilding and its Middle Eastern environment, as if it was something so rarely done. I mean, though the market remains saturated with the classic medieval European backdrop, other SFF authors such as Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker have been doing this for over a decade, and doing this with much more depth and with a more arresting imagery. The city of Sharakhai and the rest of Beaulieu's creation fail to come alive the way the universe of The Lays of Anuskaya surprised and amazed me at every turn. One of the shortcomings that this novel shares with The Winds of Khalakovo would have to be that Beaulieu keeps his cards way too close to his chest. Indeed, once again he plunges his readers into the heart of the tale without offering a whole lot in terms of explanation or information. There are hints of hidden depth throughout Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, yet the readers are mostly left in the dark about most aspects of the plot. Which, understandably, given that the ending offers very little in terms of payoff and resolution, was quite off-putting.
One of the elements I loved the most about The Lays of Anuskaya was the fact that it was all shades of gray. This was adult fantasy the way it should be. Nothing clear-cut or juvenile, nothing so simple as good vs evil. The relationships between characters were complex and morally ambiguous, the way they normally are in real life. That trilogy featured none of the bells and whistles that thrill younger fantasy fans, yet it was satisfying on so many levels that it didn't matter. Still, for those reasons, some readers felt that Beaulieu's books were too slow-moving, not too exciting, and a bit boring. Which might be why the author opted for a more black and white approach when he set out to write Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. Indeed, the novel is filled with a lot of action and battle scenes, and the protagonists feature none of the complexity and moral ambiguity that made characters like Nikandr Khalakovo, Atiana Vostroma, Nasim, Soroush, Rehada, and Styophan Andrashayev such unforgettable people. Sadly, by trying to produce a work that younger fans more into black and white fantasy series akin to those written by bestselling authors like Brandon Sanderson, I'm afraid that Bradley P. Beaulieu had to take every single facet of his writing which made The Lays of Anuskaya so terrific out of the equation. Which, in the end, in my humble opinion, makes Twelve Kings in Sharakhai feel as if it had been written by a different person.
As far as characterization is concerned, I've always said that Beaulieu's style was some sort of hybrid between Steven Erikson and L. E. Modesitt, Jr. But he also has a deft human touch that often reminded me of Robin Hobb. That was true for the first trilogy, but not for this new novel. There is no depth to speak of when it comes to the main protagonists. Everything is black and white through and through, with not a single shade of gray anywhere within the storylines. Çeda is too badass for her own good, and I found it impossible to care for or root for her. With Çeda being a hardcore girl trained to be a weapon, I was expecting Beaulieu to use our own preconceptions against us, the way he has often done in the past, and surprise and shock us when we least expected it. Alas, that was not to be. In previous works, Beaulieu's protagonists, though not flamboyant, were always solid, genuine, and three-dimensional men and women that remain true to themselves. In that regard, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is a world away. Emre, who gradually falls under the yoke of the Moonless Host, is another decidedly black and white character with no depth. I had high hopes that Beaulieu would do with him what he did with Soroush, demonstrating that there is much more to him than just being a fundamentalist terrorist. Alas, once again that was not to be. At first, it seemed that Ramahd Amansir could be a wild card that could turn this tale around. But the culmination of his plotline fell a bit flat and he couldn't save this book.
The structure of the novel is also different from what Beaulieu has accustomed us to in the past. Like Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, it's made up of chapters occurring in real time and of chapters featuring flashback scenes meant to fill the gaps in Çeda and Emre's backstory. And while some flashbacks serve to further flesh out the storylines and help us understand how both teenagers became the way they are now, certain scenes only worked as filler material and actually broke the momentum of the book.
As was the case with The Winds of Khalakovo, by the time you reach the end of this novel you still understand very little about the magical system and why things are the way they are. We can only hope that the second volume will be more forthcoming in that regard. Trouble is, I'm not sure I'm willing to go through another such book. . .
The pace, I'm afraid, is atrocious. I mean, as I mentioned earlier, no Bradley P. Beaulieu book has ever been called a fast-paced affair. And yet, those works were usually slow-moving because the author was laying a lot of groundwork for what was to come, or he was weaving various threads to bring everything together. Not so with Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. Indeed, the novel features quite a few chapters that seemingly bring little or nothing to the overall story arc and which could have been excised without hurting the tale in any way. Things pick up near the end, but it's a case of "too little, too late." The ending doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense, what with the Maidens taking Çeda's word for what happened and not question anything. As stated above, the fact that the ending offers very little in terms of payoff or resolution also robs the finale of any kind of impact.
Considering that Beaulieu's Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was one of my most eagerly anticipated SFF titles of 2015, this is a major disappointment for me. So much so that I'm thinking this series just might not be for me. The silver lining, if there is one, is that people unacquainted with The Lays of Anuskaya appear to be loving this book. Which means that most of those readers might be enticed to give the author's first fantasy series a shot. And the more people who do so, the better it will be for Beaulieu!