Despite numerous, valiant efforts over the past few years to broaden the palette of epic fantasy, the genre still has a default setting: some fictionalized version of medieval Europe. Add Bradley P. Beaulieu's new novel, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, to the growing list of proud exceptions. Set in a world covered by desert and lit by twin moons, Twelve Kings includes Islamic and Ancient Egyptian influences among its fabulist mix of cultures.
But Beaulieu does more than just paint a pretty backdrop. Sharakhai, the enormous metropolis in which his story takes place, is practically a living thing — a vividly conceived realm full of class friction, tangled webs of intrigue, sand-sailing ships, and an overall cloud of majestic doom that creates drama in almost every nook and cranny of the sprawling, shadowy, magnificent city. The book's titular pantheon of Twelve Kings is a cross between monarchs and gods; they've ruled Sharakhai for centuries with iron fists, and the people of the city have grown less than happy with their pantheon's arrangement.
No fantasy setting, regardless of how fresh and immersive, truly springs to life without a great central character to navigate it. On that end, Twelve Kings more than delivers. The tattooed, sword-wielding Çedamihn Ahyanesh'ala — who goes by Çeda in the fighting pits of Sharakhai, where she claws out her daily living — is haunted by the death of her mother. That tragedy is dragged to the fore when Çeda defies the laws of the Twelve Kings to walk the streets of the city during Beht Zha'ir, a night of the year that's as holy as it is dangerous. Ghoulish creatures called the asirim emerge from the desert every Beht Zha'ir — only these creatures do more than simply prey on disobeyers, as Çeda finds out. They carry the key to the secret behind the death of Çeda's mother — and many other secrets, some of which will resound all the way to the rarified heights of the Twelve Kings.
As Çeda tries to piece together the clues hidden in fragments of a cryptic poem, her relationship with childhood friend and old flame Emre grows complicated — a situation made even more tense by Çeda's ferocious desire to solve the mystery surrounding her. Even if it means threatening Sharakhai's entire worldview.
Beaulieu's plot doesn't reinvent epic fantasy, but it puts an intricate, suspenseful spin on it — and in Çeda, he's crafted a world-class hero. As a gladiator by trade, she's fierce in the ring. But she's just as fiercely curious and passionate, with a demeanor that's as precociously wise as it is violently impulsive. She's a dynamic, multilayered, utterly fascinating character worth spending time with, and Beaulieu is giving the reader that chance; Twelve Kings is the inaugural book of a series, and if each volume is hefty as the first, there's a lot Çeda to come.
That said, Twelve Kings concludes in a masterful way, leaving Çeda as well as the fate of Sharakhai itself hanging in the balance, but wrapping up just enough plot threads to make the book feel like a complete story — even as Çeda moves into a crucial new phase of her far from peaceful life.
Beaulieu has proved himself able to orchestrate massive storylines in his previous series, the Lays of Anuskaya trilogy. But Twelve Kings lays down even more potential. Fantasy and horror, catacombs and sarcophagi, resurrections and revelations: The book has them all, and Beaulieu wraps it up in a package that's as graceful and contemplative as it is action-packed and pulse-pounding. As fantasy continues to diversify and open itself up to a more vibrant representation of cultures and possibilities, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai should rank among the most satisfying.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.