With Blood Upon the Sand

You probably remember 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.

Unfortunately, it took everything I had just to go through that book. Although I really wanted to love it, I felt that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai featured nothing that made Beaulieu's first trilogy such a memorable work of fantasy. Nothing at all. To a certain extent, the first installment in the Song of the Shattered Sands series featured all the shortcomings of the previous trilogy, but none of the depth, the great worldbuilding, or the superior characterization.

Needless to say, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was a major disappointment for me. So much so that I was thinking this series just might not be for me. Honestly, I had no desire to keep going. Which is why this review comes two years late. But I've said many times that I consider Bradley P. Beaulieu to be one of the bright new voices in the genre and something kept nagging at me to give the sequel a shot. Understandably, I was reticent to do so. But when the third volume came out and garnered good reviews, once again I felt the urge to give the series a second chance. So I got in touch with the author and asked for a detailed synopsis so I could dive into the second installment without missing a beat. Beaulieu was happy to provide it and, yada yada yada, here's my review of With Blood Upon the Sand! And I'm glad to report that it's a much better read than its predecessor!

Here's the blurb:

With Blood Upon the Sand is the second book in the Song of Shattered Sands epic fantasy trilogy.

Çeda, now a Blade Maiden in service to the kings of Sharakhai, trains as one of their elite warriors, gleaning secrets even as they send her on covert missions to further their rule. She knows the dark history of the asirim—that hundreds of years ago they were enslaved to the kings against their will—but when she bonds with them as a Maiden, chaining them to her, she feels their pain as if her own. They hunger for release, they demand it, but with the power of the gods compelling them, they find their chains unbreakable.

Çeda could become the champion they’ve been waiting for, but the need to tread carefully has never been greater. After their recent defeat at the hands of the rebel Moonless Host, the kings are hungry for blood, scouring the city in their ruthless quest for revenge. Çeda’s friend Emre and his new allies in the Moonless Host hope to take advantage of the unrest in Sharakhai, despite the danger of opposing the kings and their god-given powers, and the Maidens and their deadly ebon blades.

When Çeda and Emre are drawn into a plot of the blood mage Hamzakiir, they learn a devastating secret that may very well shatter the power of the hated kings. But it may all be undone if Çeda cannot learn to navigate the shifting tides of power in Sharakhai and control the growing anger of the asirim that threatens to overwhelm her…

Beaulieu's The Lays of Anuskaya featured fantastic worldbuilding. Very Russian and Eastern European in style and tone, the author demonstrated that he had a great eye for details. That backdrop gave the series a very distinctive vibe and flavor. Surprisingly, he failed to imbue his new desert world with the same sort of depth. Which made me wonder why so many reviews of the first volume praised 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 failed to come alive the way the universe of The Lays of Anuskaya amazed me at every turn. One of the shortcomings that sunk Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was that Beaulieu kept his cards way too close to his chest. Indeed, once again he plunged his readers into the heart of the tale without offering a whole lot in terms of explanation or information. There were hints of hidden depth throughout, yet we were mostly left in the dark about most aspects of the plot. Which, given that the ending offered very little in terms of payoff and resolution, was quite off-putting. Not so with With Blood Upon the Sand. Revelations are made and secrets are unveiled regarding the kings, the Moonless Host, the gods, the asirim, and much, much more. Beaulieu definitely elevated his game in this sequel and it makes for a more satisfying read!

In my review of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I explained that 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, made Twelve Kings in Sharakhai feel as if it had been written by a different person. I'm not sure if it was due to the fact that he needed to lay down a lot of groundwork for the rest of the series and ultimately had more room for character development in the second volume, but I was pleasantly surprised by the improvements Beaulieu made in that regard in With Blood Upon the Sand.

In terms of characterization, I've always claimed 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 Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. There was no depth to speak of when it came to the main protagonists. Everything was black and white through and through, with not a single shade of gray anywhere within the storylines. Çeda was 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, the author's protagonists, though not flamboyant, were always solid, genuine, and three-dimensional men and women that remain true to themselves. Having said that, I found Çeda to be more compelling and likeable in this sequel. The aforementioned character development made a world of difference and made this reader care about her plight a lot more this time around. Emre, who gradually fell under the yoke of the Moonless Host, was another decidedly black and white character with no depth. He is also further fleshed out in this second installment, which was great. The same can be said of the Moonless Host and how it operates. Getting to know more about its past, its leaders and their ties to other characters and how they came to be was quite interesting. It was nice to discover that they're not just fundamentalist terrorist nutjobs. Ramahd and Meryam's plotline also takes off in fascinating fashion, opening up a slew of possibilities for things to come. Some of the kings's POVs and Davud's perspective also add layers to the plot, which proves that this series resounds with way more depth than I expected.

The structure of the novel is similar to that of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. Once more, it's made up of chapters occurring in real time and of chapters featuring flashback scenes meant to fill the gaps in the protagonists' backstories. And while some flashbacks serve to further flesh out some storylines, certain scenes only worked as filler material and actually broke the momentum of the book. Still, this was less an issue in With Blood Upon the Sand, likely because such scenes were less numerous. Or at least it felt like it.

While no Bradley P. Beaulieu book has ever been called a fast-paced affair, the rhythm of the first volume was simply atrocious. Not so with this sequel, which just might be the author's most fluid work to date. I felt that there was a nice balance between the various perspectives and that the plot was progressing at a good clip.

My main gripe with the finale of the first installment was the fact that the ending offered very little in terms of payoff or resolution. Not so with the endgame of With Blood Upon the Sand, however. Bradley P. Beaulieu closes the show with style, setting the stage for bigger and better things to come in A Veil of Spears.

All in all, With Blood Upon the Sand is superior to its predecessor in every aspect and raises the bar to another level. If like me you were not thrilled with Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, you might want to give this one a shot. I'm almost done with the third installment and I can tell you that volume two was no fluke. I'm quite happy to have given this series another shot!

The final verdict: 7.5/10

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