In Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, Beaulieu introduces the wonders of Sharakhai, a major trading hub in the desert, where goods from the great expanse of the desert are traded from the nomadic tribes and even the lands beyond the desert. As you might expect from a grand trading hub, Sharakhai maintains a large number of visiting foreigners, from those looking to buy when the price drops a bit or sell their goods when the demand increases or the supply falls, to dignitaries, to those who come to fight in the fighting pits of Sharakhai to earn glory, or those who come to watch the fights.
And then there are the Kings. Sharakhai is ruled by not one, but twelve Kings, all of which have been granted immortality by the gods and each of whom has their own supernatural gift to assist them in ruling and protecting Sharakhai. However, over the time of their four hundred year rule, they have created their own laws and holidays, which hold the Kings as unquestionable and demands human sacrifices (to be selected is a great honor, or so they claim), while the Kings live in palaces built atop a raised stone hill in the center of the city, separating the rich, ruling class from the poor, placing them above the much poorer castes, quite literally.
There are those in Sharakhai who have grown quite tired of the Kings' oppression and tyranny. One such group, Al'afwa (the Moonless Host), has used guerrilla tactics to oppose the Kings, but the Kings have a tendency to repay a death with twenty similar deaths, so their efforts are of questionable efficacy. For others who oppose the Kings, the cost to the people of Sharakhai for these tactics is too high.
The main protagonist of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, Çeda ("Shay-da"), is one such person. A poor girl who grows up as a "gutter wren," after her enigmatic and mysterious mother passes away, Çeda primarily learned one thing from her mother: to hate the Kings. Upon her mother's death, Çeda swears an oath to kill them all and tries to learn the mysteries of the Kings that her mother had managed to uncover and locked away for safekeeping in a mysterious book of poetry that she left for Çeda, hoping that these mysteries would be the Kings' undoing.
Çeda has been hardened, physically, by her difficult life, which included not only growing up on the street and often having to run for her life, but also her career as a pit fighter, which she took up with anonymity and to great success, becoming quite a legend as "The White Wolf of Sharakhai." She was not without friends, however, growing up with a band of other gutter wrens, including her best friend, Emre, a roguish young fellow who was good at removing purses and, it would seem, ladies' clothing. Their relationship defies easy definition; while they had romantic overtones, from time to time, their interactions more often and more truly took the form of protective siblings.
This first book in the The Song of Shattered Sands series follows Çeda's path from curious child and gutter wren to pit fighter and, ultimately, as she is swept up in her destiny, learning a bit of her mother's mysteries, some of her past, and more than she ever thought she would of the Kings and their protective guard (and daughters), the Blade Maidens.
With some maturity, even Çeda realizes that she cannot take on all of the Kings on her own and she will have to rely on old friends, new friends, and new old friends, both directly and indirectly, to assist her in her quest. She will make dangerous enemies, unlikely friends and have to use the strategies of misdirection that she learned in the pits, but now in the more dangerous games of social influence and espionage.
I love Fantasy and Science Fiction, two genres in which you can expect to experience new and amazing experiences - strange and exciting cultures, unfamiliar customs and wondrous magic and/or technology - which stand out as marked differences from the reality with which I'm familiar. I expect and welcome this. And, while the introduction of these alien elements is, by its very nature, alienating, it's usually tempered by bridging to these new concepts through comparison to something familiar. Of course, there are times that you're left to try to work out what's being referred to via context, but that shouldn't happen so often as to become a distraction. However, at times I felt as though Beaulieu worked too hard to make even common things feel strange and alien. From the diphthongs and strange spellings of words and names (sheik becomes shaik, David becomes Davud, Daniel becomes Dana'il and Abraham is Ibrahim) to the different articles of clothing that are mentioned in passing, but left for the reader to either guess or look up on their own, unless you're already familiar with jalabiyas, niqabs, kufis, thawbs and the like. Even the main character isn't simply Çeda, but Çedamihn Ahyanesh'ala.
Despite the alienating aspect of the some of the terms, I found Beaulieu's writing to be interesting and, at times, quite captivating. I will admit that I was a bit worried when Çeda has a sexual encounter by the 12th page. I was beginning to wonder if the genre wasn't quite what I thought it was. As it turns out, there's not a lot of sex detailed in the book, but Çeda is a strong female character who is not afraid of making advances, from time to time, but seems to avoid any long-term romantic relationships or making any man think she's in love with them.
I found many places in the reading that caused me to smile and a few that made me laugh out loud at a turn of events; some things I caught onto early and others that were pleasantly surprising. I look forward to the rest of the series and would recommend Twelve Kings in Sharakhai: The Song of Shattered Sands - Book One to anyone who thinks they might find desert fantasy interesting (they have curved swords!), replete with swordplay, blood magic, gods, immortals and twisted creatures of the desert.