Twelve Kings by Bradley P Beaulieu is the first book in a six book epic fantasy series set in the great city of Sharakai, deep in the heart of an oppressive desert landscape. This is the kind of fantasy I’ve been searching for. A world of sand dunes, fighting pits & kings; tribes, waking gods & monsters. Sex, lies, betrayals: determination, ruthlessness, skill all together makes Twelve Kings one of my favourite reads.
It is wonderful. and I’ll tell you why.
Now, I’m the first to admit that I enjoy the traditional medieval Europe sword & sorcery fantasy setting. It’s comfortable, familiar. Yet this new (to me!) desert setting really fascinated me. Beaulieu’s descriptions of clothing, food and tradition were luscious, sumptuous and kind of breathtaking. The detail was thoroughly immersive without having large paragraphs of information dumping. I felt like I was wandering the very streets the characters tread, I could feel the hot dry air prickle my neck. The whole experience was completely addictive. And that’s before we begin to unravel the mysteries hinted at from the first page.
We mainly follow Ceda, a fantastic pit fighter who battles under the guise of the White Wolf to earn money while she tries to fulfil her vow to kill the Twelve Kings of Sharakai. I really enjoyed the writing style, I found it very engaging and it masterfully built tension as the story progressed and the stakes got higher. The varied sentence structures were particularly good at this in the fight scenes. Unusually for me, I didn’t hate reading the flashback chapters. Normally I dislike the inclusion of flashbacks or ‘5 years earlier…‘ chapters as I find that they halt the pace of the ‘present day’ narrative but surprisingly this was not the case in Twelve Kings. I found that they were not only necessary to the plot but remained interesting. A new experience for me!
This is quite a character driven fantasy story which I love (hello, Robin Hobb) and the characters here are diverse and complex.Wholly worth my time and patience. Despite some of them coming from similar backgrounds they all had their own stories that shaped their behaviours and beliefs in a realistic way. I liked that we found out about certain events as the story went on rather as suddenly some behaviours made much more sense and it was fun to connect the dots. I particularly enjoyed reading events unfurl and develop from the different ‘camps’ – the Kings, the Moonless Host, Ceda and Ramahd. I won’t explain the motivations and characteristics of these different point of views in order to avoid spoilers, but I will say that I am especially interested to watch Ramahd’s storyline progress.
This brings me to my only niggle. Around the middle of the book there was a big revelation for Ceda. This comes after a really interesting chapter with Ramahd where we learn his real motives behind being in Sharakai. The pace was swimming along nicely and I was so ready to see these narratives intertwine at the same pace. Yet, all of a sudden we go to Ceda studying old texts for a few chapters and there are a few time jumps while a couple of weeks pass by. We don’t see/hear from him again for a while and I missed him. I was so intrigued by his story and couldn’t wait to see him kick off his mission in earnest. I felt it was a little jarring to introduce such a juicy storyline at an integral moment and then put it on a back-burner – & then not expand on Ceda’s ‘she knew what she needed to do’ revelation. Not for a while at least. I felt this let the pace drop, which in the middle of a 580 page book isn’t great. However, it soon picked up again and I was invested enough in all of the characters to still turn the pages avidly.
I must admit I am also slightly concerned about Emre. I really like him as a character but I feel like he blatantly fits a common trope. The one of the ‘Good Guy’ sucked into controversial/bad actions due to a traumatic past event and insecure feelings etc… I fear I can predict how his story will play out which is a bit disappointing in the first of a six book series. However, I must keep some faith in Beaulieu’s writing, he may totally surprise me and twist the trope on its head. I would like that. Although if I had to choose between male leads, I’d pick Ramahd hands down. He is more interesting and more mature. Emre isn’t juvenile as such, I just feel that despite all he has gone through he still has a lot of growing up to do. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s done really well. It’s obvious that Beaulieu wants Emre to be like that, I just hope he doesn’t continue to fit that trope so well as the series progresses.
But wait, there’s more good stuff. I like the murky depths of all these characters. None of them are wholly good, they’ve all done terrible things and it’s just seen as part of their life. There is no ‘golden’ character that is a shining beacon of goodness which I liked. In some parts it’s difficult to know whose side you want to be on, which speaks volumes for Beaulieu’s excellent characterisations. I like how dark and twisty the Kings are, I can’t wait to discover more about some of them, learn what makes them tick. Something is afoot and I need to know what it is. Another favourite fantasy element of mine is having real gods. Most fantasy worlds have deities whose names the characters use to curse with, or that embody personality traits in them, but I LOVE it when they are actually real and can walk amongst them. We have that here and oooh I am so ready for more. Only two were glimpsed in this first book, a little taster of what’s to come I hope! And of course, there is magic. It hasn’t been explored too much, naturally something is keeping the Kings alive for hundreds of years and there’s something in Saliah’s chiming tree but other than that we’ve only really seen a show of blood magic. Which is interesting, but I’m looking forward to reading more.
Anyway, what are you waiting for? Go read this book!