The Song of the Shattered Sand, by Bradley P. Beaulieu, is a series I probably don’t talk about enough (maybe because every time I do I have to google the series name and Bradley’s name to make sure I get the spelling right). One of the primary issues with it is there is just so much to talk about that I never feel like I have enough time. The first book in the series was Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, a book I felt had a slow start but reached fantastic heights. Bradley just put out the second book in the series, With Blood Upon the Sand, and it’s even better than its predecessor. When I originally reviewed book one I was new to the review game, but with my added experience doing these for two years I can hopefully better give Bradley and his story the props they rightly deserve.
Avoiding spoilers for book one, The Song of the Shattered Sand follows the story of a land of desert. It is a harsh land with limited resources, home to tons of roaming nomads who brave the sands. Long ago, a group of these nomads banded together to build a city at the center of the desert hoping to create stability and wealth. This city was Sharakhai. Twelve tribes with twelve kings came together to make the city, and it was incredibly successful. However, the city started to drain the resources of the desert, and its surrounding countries, in its quest to build an opulent metropolis in the sands. The remaining nomads of the sands resented this, rose up and threatened to overrun and raze the city. In the cities direst hour, the gods of the land joined together, blessed the city and its twelve kings, and helped repel the hordes of nomads. Through these desert gods the kings have been granted the divine right to rule, and govern their paradise with a just and even hand… or so they would have you think. Our story follows the POV of Ceda, a gutter wren in the city of Sharakhai and one of many who chafe under the kings’ absolute rule. The first book in the series focuses on Ceda, and her quest to overthrow the kings from the outside. With Blood Upon the Sand sees Ceda entering the service of the kings to try and take them down from within.
This new book is similar to a magical school story, with Ceda entering the elite personal army of the kings. As I have said before, I love magical schools and this is one of the best. In addition, while the first book focused primarily on Ceda, the second breaks out to a larger cast with more POVs. All the wonderful things about book one are still here in the sequel: the expansive and beautiful world, the deep characters, an exciting plot, the poetic prose, and the frankly beautiful physical book that is just fun to hold. However, the longer I spend with Bradley’s epic fantasy the more I am realizing he’s making something more impressive and complex than I initially realized. First there is Ceda. Ceda is one of the most complex and interesting characters I have read. I constantly change how i feel about her personality and her actions in the book, but that is not because Bradley is inconsistent in his writing. Ceda is just a character who I don’t know how I feel about. As mentioned before, Ceda wants to end the rule of the kings, a quest that her late mother left her. However, unlike most other fantasy quests out there, Ceda is in many ways completely on her own. Ceda doesn’t have a prophecy to work off of, she doesn’t have a kindly mentor standing behind her giving her guidance, she just has a goal and a general direction she wants to move in. It makes her mistakes feel more reasonable and forgivable than other protagonists because it is so easy to place yourself in her ignorant shoes. What this means is that unlike most other epic fantasies, The Song of the Shattered Sand is as much about figuring out what to do as how to do it. This adds a layer of mystery and unpredictability to the books that pervades every chapter.
Furthermore, I am captivated by the land of Sharakhai. Bradley builds in lore, settings, culture, and details of his setting so that I feel like I am learning something new on every page. The story doesn’t have a lot of setup (hence my original comment of a slow start) but as it pushes forward it builds this incredible momentum that makes reading it an experience. He intricately plans the lore, power, and mysteries of the kings and city, while also making it feel organic and random. One of the major pillars of the story is that the kings all have unique powers, and weaknesses, granted to them by the gods. However, unlike many other series the powers (or weaknesses) aren’t know to anyone but the kings. The only information outside their heads on the subject is a series of 12 poems that were lost to time. These poems each tell: the identity of the king, their power, and how to kill them – but they are all in riddle form and the riddles are hard. A lot of the time when you get poems and prophecies in fantasy, it is painfully obvious who they point to – but Bradley’s are both eloquent and maddening as they often feel like they refer to multiple kings and that their powers and weaknesses could be anything, It is a refreshing take on prophecy and every time Ceda identifies a poem to its owner you get this satisfying rush of “it all makes sense now”. The story and world are a mystery wrapped in an enigma and I love peeling back each layer.
On top of beginning wonderfully complex, the entire story is in a grey area. There are more sides of this story than a cube, and I have no idea whose I am on. The more you learn about the kings, the more you can see that “evil tyrants” is an oversimplification. In addition, the noble rebels seeking to overthrow them have multiple subgroups whose goals align a lot less than they initially think. The book has political intrigue oozing out of every pore and shifting through the various players and characters is very satisfying. Finally, the magic and culture of the book is just fun to read. I have never been huge on Middle Eastern fantasy, but Bradley’s adaptation of the setting feels original and like it doesn’t fetishize the culture to a western audience (at least to me). I would love to spend some time talking with Bradley about his inspiration for the work, and what ideas he adapted from existing mythology and what he built for himself.
Despite my glowing praise, the books are not without flaws. Bradley if you are reading this you need a damn appendix, I cannot keep all your characters straight on my own. The pacing of the series is much slower than I am used to, but I am not entirely sure it is a flaw. With Blood Upon the Sand rarely kept me on the edge of my seat, preferring to slip grand reveals unexpectedly into the middle of chapters with little build up. On the other hand, I was never bored. The book might not be the most exciting ever, but it is definitely captivating in a slow and methodical way. The books are incredibly long, and felt it, but I had a really hard time thinking of anything that I would cut. Every scene clearly had a reason, and while the book might have been slimmed slightly, I actually think it was fine the way it was.
The Song of the Shattered Sand is an incredible series running under the radar of most people I know. Despite its slow pacing and quiet personality, it has an enormous amount of substance. I hope this review has gotten you intrigued enough to take a look and brave the sands. If you are looking for a wonderful world, a complex cast, mystery around every corner, and an unforgettable trip into the desert, I recommend you check out Bradley P. Beaulieu’s latest work.
Rating: With Blood Upon the Sand – 9.0/10