Twelve Kings. Book Review

twelveTWELVE KINGS (Book 1: The Song of Shattered Sands)
by Bradley Beaulieu
Gollancz, 592pp standard h/back, £18.99 cover price
Reviewed by Alex Bardy (@mangozoid)

There is much to like in this mammoth book, not least some top quality world-building beneath the sheets (and between them, boom!), but there is plenty that typifies the whole fantasy epic sub-genre for me, too, and not necessarily in a good way…

Where to begin, then… well, if you’re the author it’s by chucking your heroine, Çeda (pronounced Chay-da btw) into the fighting arenas of Sharakhai under a pseudonym, the White Wolf, and have her artfully pick apart an opponent much bigger and more experienced than she is. So far, so blasé. Then you start introducing her fellow compatriots, the majority of whom are quite unsavoury types and not really the sort you’d invite round for tea and biscuits with your parents… Ahem. And then you give your readers the briefest glimpse of this living, breathing, quite remarkable fantasy world as it is today, including a vibrant and thoroughly well-defined social and cultural setting, before promptly dashing it all by swiping the curtain away and chucking the reader back to Çeda’s childhood memories, thus instantly sending the narrative into Terry Brooks and Dragonlance territory, and thus spoiling it for the rest of us… aarrgghh!

Don’t get me wrong, because I do believe the history of Çeda has a very strong and very real bearing on the way things unfold – her encounter with the desert witch and the tree chimes that seem to foretell her future is artfully done, her brief and stuttered recollection of time spent alongside her mother proves quite revealing, and the way in which magic is largely drug-induced is also refreshing to see, but this is info-dumping taken to the extreme… Really, it is. Most of what went on in Çeda’s past could’ve been dealt with and introduced in a much easier, more laidback manner, rather than sending us back numerous times to another time and place and stifling the narrative flow.

I don’t wish to be unfair to the author, because the desert world of Sharakhai is seriously complete, water-tight (sorry!), and yes, smartly done: not just in terms of how solidly the society works, the judicial and cultural aspects of same, the supposed immortality of the kings and the regimented lives of their Blade Maiden protectors, the way the desert ships skim across the sands, etc. – all of it is flawlessly executed. Yes, it’s well wrought, alright, but getting to the meat and bones of the story did feel like an extended desert hike without the necessary watering holes… 😉

It took me the best part of 400 pages to finally get into this –to stop marvelling at the cultural, social, and all-round wondrous nature of the setting– and actually start caring about the story, the characters, and the plot itself; yet none of this came from the flashbacks, the stolen memories, the historic revelations, etc. And to top it all, criminally, the ending then comes at you like an express train: so fast, so tidy, and so neatly compartmentalised that you’re left with a feeling of “what the #$!&# was all that fuss about?”

This does of course set things up smoothly for the next volume – again, typical of modern epic fantasy-stylee – but that’s not really the point imho (or maybe it is?)… Conclusion? Admire the stage and enjoy the scenery if you wish, but when it’s all over just ask yourself whether it was worth queuing up for…