Beneath the Twisted Trees

You probably remember that it took everything I had just to go through Twelve Kings in Sharakhai a few years back. Which was mostly due to the fact that the book featured nothing that made Beaulieu's first trilogy such a memorable work of fantasy. Indeed, I gave each installment of Bradley P. Beaulieu's The Lays of Anuskaya a glowing review, claiming that it was one of the most engrossing fantasy series I had read in many a year. Dark, ambitious, complex, and populated with a great cast of characters that leap off the pages, it was everything I wanted it to be.

Needless to say, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was a major disappointment for me. So much so that I thought The Song of the Shattered Sands just wasn't for me and it took me two years to finally give the second installment a shot. Thankfully, With Blood Upon the Sand was a much better read than its predecessor. I was glad to have given the series another shot, for A Veil of Spears turned out to be just as good. Its endgame and finale set the stage for another compelling read and I was curious to discover what the author had in store for us in this fourth volume. In terms of plot, Beneath the Twisted Trees moves the story forward in surprising ways, but its execution occasionally leaves something to be desired. And in the end, though it is an interesting novel which builds on the storylines of its predecessors, it failed to live up to the potential of the last two installments.

Here's the blurb:

The fourth book in The Song of Shattered Sands series–an epic fantasy with a desert setting, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action.

When a battle to eradicate the Thirteenth Tribe goes awry, the kingdoms bordering the desert metropolis of Sharakhai see the city as weak and ripe for conquest. Çeda, now leader of the Shieldwives, a band of skilled desert swordswomen, hopes to use the growing chaos to gain freedom for Sehid-Alaz, the ancient, undying king of her people. Freeing him is only the beginning, however. Like all the people of her tribe on that fateful night four centuries earlier, Sehid-Alaz was cursed, turned into an asir, a twisted, miserable creature beholden to the kings of Sharakhai—to truly free her king, Çeda must break the chains that bind him.

As Sharakhai’s enemies close in and the assault on the city begins, Çeda works feverishly to unlock the mysteries of the asirim’s curse. But danger lies everywhere. Enemy forces roam the city; the Blade Maidens close in on her; her own father, one of the kings of Sharakhai, wants Çeda to hang. Worst of all, the gods themselves have begun to take notice of Çeda’s pursuits.

When the combined might of Sharakhai and the desert gods corner the survivors of the Thirteenth Tribe in a mountain fastness, the very place that nearly saw their annihilation centuries ago, Çeda knows the time has come. She was once an elite warrior in service to the kings of Sharakhai. She has been an assassin in dark places. A weapon poised to strike from the shadows. A voice from the darkness, striving to free her people.

No longer.

Now she’s going to lead.

The age of the Kings is coming to an end . . .

Personally, I felt that one of the shortcomings that sunk Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was that the author kept his cards way too close to his chest as far as the worldbuilding was concerned. Beaulieu 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 as readers were mostly left in the dark about most facets of the plot. Beaulieu definitely elevated his game in both With Blood Upon the Sand and A Veil of Spears. A panoply of revelations were made and secrets were unveiled regarding the kings, the Moonless Host, the gods, the asirim, and so much more. With a great amount of groundwork already laid out in the first three volumes, in Beneath the Twisted Trees Beaulieu continues to build on those plotlines and adds more layers to a plot that resounds with more and more depth with each new novel. This bodes well for the two installments to come. His Middle Eastern environment remains particularly well-realized and continues to create an arresting imagery.

In terms of characterization, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was a world away from Beaulieu's previous series. The Lays of Anuskaya trilogy was all shades of gray. It was, in my humble opinion, adult fantasy the way it should be. Nothing clear-cut or juvenile about it, nothing so simple as good vs evil. The relationships between characters were complex and morally ambiguous, the way they normally are in real life. In the first installment of The Song of the Shattered Sands, 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 such a hardcore character, 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. Previously, his protagonists, though not flamboyant, were always solid, genuine, and three-dimensional men and women that remain true to themselves. Not so in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.

Fortunately, I found Çeda to be far more engaging and likeable in the following two installments and the same can be said of Beneath the Twisted Trees. Once more, the character development in this fourth volume made a big difference and Bradley P. Beaulieu found yet more ways to elevate his game in this aspect of his writing. Emre, who gradually fell under the yoke of the Moonless Host, was another decidedly black and white character with no depth early on. But he was also further fleshed out in the last couple of books. The same can be said of the Moonless Host and how it operates, the kings, the gods, and a whole lot more. The characterization, which was so weak in the first volume, has evolved considerably and is now comprised of a quality cast of characters. In addition, secondary protagonists such as Brama, Ramahd, Alina, and Davud play more important roles in this novel and its obvious that their respective storylines will have bigger repercussions in the greater scheme of things.

So what are those execution glitches that I've alluded to? In their attempt to free Sehid-Alaz, Çeda and her allies must find a way to try to bond with the asirim in order to weaken or break the connection they already share with the kings of Sharakhai. And though Beaulieu came up with a fascinating concept to do just that, how the process occurred sort of came out of left field. The same thing goes for the two mustering enemy forces arrayed against Sharakhai. There was no reason for them to delay this long to engage, but the plot demanded that certain events take place beforehand and hence everything feels clumsily contrived in that regard. The kings themselves, who have ruled ruthlessly for more than four centuries, continue to prove to be rather petty, arrogant, stupid, and ineffectual. So much so that it makes you wonder how a bunch of incompetent people who are seemingly so unfit to rule could have held power for so long. They also die rather easily, which cheapens the whole thing somewhat. Thus far, every time there has been a showdown between the twelve kings and those who oppose them, be they good guys or bad guys, they have pretty much lost every encounter. One would think that they would be a lot harder to defeat or kill. I'm well aware that with Beaulieu elevating his game and adding layers to the plot in Beneath the Twisted Trees, these execution glitches may not matter as much to some readers. So your mileage may vary. . .

Not surprisingly, as with most Bradley P. Beaulieu novels, there are a few pacing issues throughout. This fourth volume may not be a page-turner, but I felt that there was a nice balance between the various perspectives and that the plot progressed at a good clip. The first portion of the book may be a little too slow-moving in terms of rhythm, but other than a few rougher sequences here and there, for the most part the pace is never really a problem. In any event, readers who have made it this far have come to know what to expect.

It feels as though the author now has strategically placed all his pieces on the board and is setting the stage for the endgame that will lead us to the resolution of The Song of the Shattered Sands. With the proverbial shit ready to hit the fan, there should be plenty of fireworks. And even though Beneath the Twisted Trees wasn't as captivating as the last two installments, Bradley P. Beaulieu continues to move the story forward in an intriguing fashion, weaving his plotlines into a great tapestry that promies a lot of great things to come. Looking forward to the forthcoming When Jackals Storm the Walls.

The final verdict: 7/10

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