Twelve Kings: The Song of the Shattered Sands - Bradley Beaulieu
Norse mythology and medieval sword and sorcery tends to dominate the look and feel of the typical fantasy epic, but there are growing sub-genres that are now providing serious competition for the traditional format. In many ways the exotic Arabian Nights Asian and Oriental setting of Bradley Beaulieu's Twelve Kings even feels like a far more natural world for all the adventure and magic of a fantasy epic, but perhaps that's just down to how inventively Beaulieu makes use of the riches that the setting provides.
Twelve Kings is set in the desert city of Sharakhai, where ships and schooners sail on seas of sand. The desert is still no place for a city, and indeed we soon find that the origins of the creation of Sharakhai and the Twelve Kings that rule it are shrouded in mystery and deals with dark forces such as the wraith-like asirim. The person who is going to delve into the heart of this dark mystery is an interesting figure herself. Nineteen year old Çeda is an orphan (naturally) who has worked herself up in the pit fighting arena and through associations to various shady agencies to become a formidable force. Which is good, because she's going to need a whole lot of determination and strength as well as some deep research and influential alliances if she is going to find a way to destroy all Twelve Kings with their Blade Maiden protectors to avenge her mother's death.
If you read a lot of fantasy, you'll understand why I make an issue of Çeda being an orphan. It's practically obligatory that her parentage and backstory be a mystery, as it is sure to hold the key to her destiny. In a world of Kings and prophesies, you can be pretty much certain that Çeda is more than just an common urchin off the streets. Even though we know this is a fairly common fantasy convention, what matters is what the author makes of it, and to be fair, there's a lot of imagination and inventiveness in the situations here, with motivation aplenty for Çeda in what we already know of the backstory behind the death of her mother. The fact that Çeda has discovered a magical stone delivering secret goods for her employer, soon gives her an opportunity to enquire further into events and a history that could potentially have huge implications for Sharakhai.
The backstory comes out gradually in The Song of the Shattered Sands, but never gets in the way of the main drive of the storytelling. In fact, as the Arabian Nights setting of the fantasy promises, the legends, the sorcery, the history of this world proves to be richly developed by the author, providing not only interesting interludes, but introducing key concepts and mythological background colourfully and meaningfully at the relevant points without it feeling like so much world building. In doing so it reaches out beyond the typical questions of identity and coming of age of Çeda by extending her identity out to friends - like Emre - to family, lovers, and particularly the deep feelings that she has for her mother. As well as being much more than secondary characters that go into defining Çeda, they are all important parts of the fabric of the tale.
In Twelve Kings: The Song of the Shattered Sands - which I'm assuming is going to be the first part of a trilogy - there's a lot more than just scene setting and world building. Events move along quickly, Çeda's growth and position seem to come about naturally, with all the prominent figures are introduced well and in an exciting fashion. The history that is revealed adds to the depth and scope of the story's ambitions, as well as its mystery. This looks like the beginnings of a terrific new fantasy series, one that works largely within the accepted conventions, but finds a wealth of imaginative ways to build something new within it. I suspect that there'll also be a few more twists on those genre trappings as we go along, or there is at least evidence that Twelve Kings will be continue to be entertaining right up to the undoubtedly cataclysmic revelations and revolutions that are promised.