With Blood Upon The Sand – Sandsational

with-blood-upon-the-sand-coverThe 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

Of Sand And Malice Made – A Captivating Jaunt Into The Desert

of-sand-and-malice-made-med-1A while back I was given the opportunity to read the great Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by the talented Bradley P. Beaulieu (whose name I have yet to spell correctly the first time I have written it). The book had a slow start, but turned out to be one of the best epic fantasy newcomers I have read in years. The story follows a female gladiator named Ceda as she attempts to seek revenge on the twelve ruling kings in a metropolis in the middle of a desert. You can read my review of that book here, but recently Bradley has released a prequel novella to the book called Of Sand and Malice Made that I managed to get my hands on through netgalley. My hope was that this story might provide a slightly better start to the novel I enjoyed so much.

Of Sand and Malice Made follows our protagonist Ceda in the months before Twelve Kings as she tried to live through three different mystical encounters. The gods of the world, and their creatures, have taken an interest in Ceda and she must go to great lengths to turn their gaze elsewhere. The short story is split into three parts, each one covering an otherworldly encounter. The first involves escaping a magical drug den, the second rescuing a captive, and the third is about Ceda finally “breaking free” from the magical creatures who have bound themselves to her. Honestly the plot is fascinating and exciting, and I would have loved to read this short story before I started Twelve Kings. The story made me a lot more invested in Ceda than the beginning of Twelve Kings did and Bradley’s prose is in fine form. Mr. Beaulieu has a real talent for describing the desert that is transportive and mesmerizing. Ceda can be a bit obnoxious and stubborn at times, but this novella continues to build my affection for her. In addition, Bradley continues to have a great cast of side characters that help me move past any issues I have with Ceda.

There was only one real criticism I had for Of Sand and Malice Made. The book weirdly felt like it should be a sub plot in a larger novel as opposed to its own stand alone story. The transitions between the three parts of the novel are a bit jarring as time passes between where the first chapter ends and the next picks up and you are not eased into these jumps at all. I think this could have been smoothed immensely if this story was nestled in a larger book. One small note is that I also can never tell how much the general citizens of Sharakhai are aware of the mystical side of their city. Some people react with extreme shock, while others act as though it is not big deal.

However, in the end the positives in Of Sand and Malice Made greatly outweigh the negative. The short story accomplishes exactly what I wanted, giving a strong introduction to Ceda’s character and endearing her to me much more quickly that the beginning of Twelve Kings did. The story has a creative and captivating plot that explores the magic of the desert and left me extremely excited for the sequel to Twelve Kings. If you are looking for an epic fantasy with a hot and sandy tone, The Quill to Live recommends both Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and Of Sand and Malice Made.

Rating: Of Sand and Malice Made – 8.5/10

The Best Of 2015

The time has come for ‘Best of 2015’ threads and to reflect on all the wonderful books I enjoyed over the year. This piece will address my top 10 reads published in 2015, but is missing some of the amazing older books I read throughout the year. I read roughly 80 books this year, about half of which (40) were published in 2015, and the following books are my top picks. I found the new releases this year surprisingly less powerful than many sequels. Last year I gave over half the top 10 spots to new releases, whereas this year only three made the cut. It has been a year of very powerful sequels, in particular second installments of series. With that said, let’s talk about some of 2015’s gems and please note that some of the blurbs link to my full reviews of the books.

 

2354736410) Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien De Castell – one of my top five books from 2014 was Traitor’s Blade, the first of the Greatcoat series, for its incredible humor, emotional impact, and great cast. The follow-up, Knight’s Shadow, was a great addition that explored some large growth in the trinity of main characters, while still keeping the same powerful voice and tone from book one. The plot evolved nicely and the general quality of the book stayed consistent with Traitor’s Blade, but there was slightly less emotional impact in the second novel. With two demonstrations of consistent talent I am eagerly awaiting De Castell’s third entry, Saint’s Blood, in 2016.

 

234444829) The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – The first of the three entries on the list to not be sequels. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a story of cultural warfare and a young girl whose home is eaten by an oppressive republic in her youth. To fight back, she becomes a cog in the great machine that is the republic and tries to bring it down from the inside. While suffering from some pacing issues, The Traitor Baru Cormorant brought a ton of new ideas to fantasy warfare and is a very different journey than your typical fare. The book has a fast pace start and end, but suffers a little in the middle. Regardless I am looking forward to more from Seth Dickinson.

 

twelve-kings_final-sm2-200x3008) Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The first of a new epic fantasy based in an Arabian setting. The story follows a girl named Cena, a gladiator in Sharakhai, as she tries to survive in an incredible city ruled by twelve kings in the center of a desert. The book had a very slow start but picked up pace rapidly after the first 20%, continuing all the way to the last page. With Bradley having found his groove I cannot wait to pick up the sequel to see where the story will go.

 

51pmvmp67ol-_sy344_bo1204203200_7) The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis – I read a lot of good historical fiction this year, with The Mechanical taking the win by a small margin. With its original setting, steampunk science, and character growth it was a refreshing read that distinguishes it from its competition. The story of The Netherlands and France has had me looking for historical fiction of a wider subject than WWII or England. The sequel, The Rising, releases next week and I will be picking it up immediately.

 

208838476) The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan – The only finale to make the list, The Autumn Republic finished off a series I don’t feel close to done with yet. McClellan’s world is gigantic, and with the close of this series I feel like we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Despite the ending feeling a little too quick, McClellan has finished a series to be proud of that maintains a high quality and exciting ride the entire way through.

 

 

61j8lp2b-eol-_sy344_bo1204203200_5) Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey – The Expanse novels are rapidly becoming my favorite purchase every summer (as they are released consistently every year in June). This series has now released five out of its nine novels and I have been blown away every single time. Every novel follows new perspectives, new challenges, and pushes the conflicts to new heights. I do not know how Ty Franik and Daniel Abraham are going to top the levels of panic and excitement Nemesis Games gave me, but I have said that about every single release. The books continue to both be a continuation of the greater series, and almost completely self contained at the same time. If you haven’t picked up any of The Expanse series yet, or have been waiting to read more, I highly encourage you to do so.

 

157044594) Firefight by Brandon Sanderson – Published early in the year, lots of people have overlooked this sleeper. Steelheart, a novel about powerless humans hunting super heroes, was a surprise hit with me. I decided to read it on a whim, despite not loving the premise,  and was blown away by the result. That being said, the first novel was very self contained and reached a pretty definite conclusion at the end, giving me a lot of concern where Sanderson was going to take the series or if it could remain good. The fact that Firefight is so much better than Steelheart was very hard to process at first. Sanderson takes his winning formula from book one, and makes it deeper, more intense, and simply a lot cooler. Sanderson’s talent for weird magic is on point with his collection of interesting super powers and the plot has a lot more emotional weight than it did in book one. The finale, Calamity, comes out next February and is one of my most anticipated books for 2016.

 

233463353) The Price of Valour by Django Wexler – The Shadow Campaigns keeps creeping up my lists the more and more I think about it. The third installment of five, The Price of Valour is proof that Wexler can learn from his mistakes and has no shortage of imagination. The Thousand Names, Wexler’s debut, was an incredible flintlock fantasy about a remote military campaign that was fast, exciting, and surprising complex. Its sequel, The Shadow Throne, was an attempt to expand the world from the first book and double the cast. While The Shadow Throne had a metric ton of new things I liked, it also felt like it lacked the exciting pace and style of Wexler’s Debut;however, The Price of Valour has it all. With the pacing and intensity of book one, and the amazing cast from book two, the third Shadow Campaign novel is the strongest so far and continues to unravel the gigantic web of mystery that covers the series.

 

220552832) Half the World by Joe AbercrombieHalf the World is the strangest book on this list to me. The second novel of The Shattered Seas trilogy, it stands miles above its prequel and sequel. Half a King (book one) and Half a War (book three) were both good Abercrombie novels (for those of you who know what that means) but neither is close to the level of Half the World. The second novel follows two perspectives, Brand and Thorn, that play off of one another in a truly magical way. It is the story of two people finding their place in the world, realizing who they are, and going on a journey. I have never seen better use of multiple perspective and the book led me on a emotional roller coaster from start to finish. This book is definitely one of Abercrombie’s finest pieces of writing.

 

91ishiycq1l1) Golden Son by Pierce BrownRed Rising is a really enjoyable book. It simultaneously steals all the things that are good from series like The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones,  and Ender’s Game while also creating both an imaginative and original setting and an exciting plot. It could simultaneously be described as a guilty pleasure, and an imaginative look as space colonization and class segregation. Red Rising had a pretty damn good thing going for it at the end of book one, and sets itself up to just reuse the incredibly powerful formula again in the sequel Golden Son… and then Pierce Brown decided to throw all of that momentum out the window and go in a completely different direction. The result is a book that felt like a massively different experience from Red Rising with the connecting theme being that both books are incredibly good. I was so confused as to why Pierce Brown would ditch his Red Rising gold mine until I was 10% in and read the entire book in one sitting. This book made me feel like a child again, discovering the wonder of reading for a first time and blowing my mind at every twist and turn. The finale, Morning Star, comes out in February and I highly recommend you check the series out.

12 Kings In Sharakhai – A Raw Diamond In The Desert

In recent years we have been seeing a surge in arabian nights-esque fantasy, which I am 100% down with. With series like The Warded Man, The Golem and Jinni, and Throne of the Crescent Moon, lots of authors have been using desert lore to craft awesome stories. I personally think the world needs more badasses in a Middle Eastern setting and that I hope this new subgenre of fantasy continues to grow at its current rate. There hasn’t been a real contender for an epic fantasy yet, but it looks like 12 Kings in Sharakhai is stepping up to fill that spot.

12 Kings is the story of Ceda, Emre, and a variety of other side characters as they live in the city of Sharakhai – jewel of the desert. Sharakhai is a city founded by 12 kings of 12 tribes after they tired of wandering the desert in a nomadic style, and, instead, decided it would be better to set up shop. A large portion of the 12 tribes do not like this, due to the lack of respect for what they deem the correct method of living, and form a coalition of sorts to bring down the kings. Unfortunately for the coalition, the kings have aces up their sleeves such as multiple sects of fanatical warriors, some sort of undead lich minions, blessings from the gods, and their own unique talents and gifts making them rather hard to kill. In addition, the kings are rather brutal in their tyrannical ways, dealing out incredibly harsh punishments to those who break their strict laws. While I would certainly not call them evil overlords, they also could not really be described as benevolent. The kings are complex and interesting, and I really enjoy them as “villains” in this great book.

On the other side of the coin, we have the aforementioned Ceda and Emre. Both are orphaned street urchins with vendettas against the kings. While they sound like tried and true fantasy tropes, I found both characters to be complex and interesting. Ceda is a pit fighter in Sharakai’s glorious fighting arena, where she battles for money and glory. Emre is a charismatic shopkeeper of sorts, who slowly uses his talents and winning smile to insinuate himself into the major factions at war. Ceda definitely takes the lion’s share of the limelight at the start of the book, but as the book progresses the time spent with various viewpoints balances out. The city itself is well developed and captivating. Each chapter teaches you more and more about customs and areas of the metropolis, and I found myself constantly desiring to see what was around each corner.

However, I did have a major complaint about the story: the beginning felt extremely slow. For the first fifth of the book I felt like I was slogging through a mess of detail and nuances about the lives of Ceda and Emre that didn’t really interest me. There were a few moments of brilliance in the beginning chapters, but the books did not really pick up for me until the reader is introduced to the kings at around 20% in. It felt kind of like reading Harry Potter, but lingering too long at the Dursleys.

That being said, you are still getting a grand Arabian adventure. Once the plot picks up it really hits its stride, teaching you about the kings and providing some truly interesting mysteries. Poetry, which I usually dislike, is heavily featured as a plot point and used in an ingenious manner to further the plot and mystery of the book. Ceda is a great lead character, and provides me with a new example of a great female leads. All in all, despite its slow start this book finishes as one of my favorites of the year and I will certainly pick up the sequel the moment I can get my hands on it.

Rating: 8.0/10