Shattered Sands At The Midpoint – An Interview With Bradley P. Beaulieu

veil-of-spears-front-cover-smAlthough it has been awhile since I read A Veil of Spears, the third book in The Song of the Shattered Sands by Bradley P. Beaulieu, it has stuck with me as one of the best things I have read so far this year. As such, I decided to see if I could talk with Bradley now that his series is half published and see how he felt it was going. He graciously responded to me, and now that I have my act together I have finally been able to get the questions and answers up! Enjoy:

So you have now finished Veil of Spears and are three books (published) into your six book series. How do you feel? Do you feel that you are on track? Relieved to be over the halfway mark? Worried about the ending?

As always, I’m roughly one book ahead of the publication schedule. I’ve just finished Book 4, Beneath the Twisted Trees, so it feels like I’m four-sixths of the way there instead of only halfway! But it feels good. In A Veil of Spears, It finally started to feel like I was providing more payoffs instead of always setting things up. So in that respect it’s satisfying. It’s nice to pull back the curtain on some of the things I’ve hidden for so long. And the series itself is on track. I knew where it was headed from the beginning, and it’s pretty much stayed on course the entire time. I’m really looking forward to finishing up the last two books and calling the series done!

After all this writing what is the thing you are most proud of in the first three books? Any particular scene that made you go “damn I am good” or a character you love?

One of the things I was really keen to explore is this notion of the loss of one’s family, the loss of one’s heritage, and the rediscovery of those things. I think some of it stems from loving things like The Lord of the Rings with all its hints of lost civilizations. Well, now I get to have my cake and eat it too! I hint at a ton of things from the past and get to revive them over the course of the books.

So it’s been a real pleasure to realize that goal. I’m not done yet. There’s still more to uncover and more for Çeda to do, but it’s been great to see it all unfold. And I’ve done it through the main character, Çeda, who has also grown up in the telling of this tale. It’s been very rewarding to see her blossom as the books have progressed. She’s been through a lot, but is coming out the other side stronger for it. Harder. At the same time, though, she hasn’t lost sight of what matters most to her: her friends, her family, her tribe.

What have you learned from each of the three books? Are there any areas you felt you needed to improve on the second half of the series or are you perfect in every way?

I think every writer is evolving. One of the things that I’ve tried to pay attention to in the past few books (with some stinging but very helpful comments from my editors!) is to be careful about over-explanation. Writers have to take care with past events, be they backstory, events from previous books, or even events in the same book that for whatever reason are being rehashed (usually due to some unfolding mystery). Explain too little and you confuse the reader. Explain too much and they feel pandered to, or worse, get bored. It’s always a bit of a challenge to decide where to draw the line, but often I was erring on the side of explaining too much, fearing the reader would get left behind. I’m adjusting a bit, trusting the reader more, and I hope it’s creating a smoother read for fans of the series.

I know this is like asking who is your favorite child, but who is your favorite character and which is your favorite book in the series (and why)?

Well the easy answer is Çeda, and it’s true. She’s the focus of the series. She’s the one who’s guided my choices the most.

That said, there is a close runner-up. Meryam. She’s someone who started off as a player in the game that’s unfolding in Sharakhai, but I didn’t envision her as being quite as big a player as she’s turned out to be. She’s bold. Driven. Much more than I gave her credit for initially. And while she’s ruthless, her actions are completely believable from her perspective. I’ve really enjoyed writing her scenes, and seeing how her story is starting to unfold. She’s become a wildcard in the series.

How much research have you done between books? Song of the Shattered Sand is some of my favorite Middle Eastern/Arabian inspired fantasy and as someone completely ignorant of the culture I am curious how much comes from their lore.

I tend to do the most research in the customs of the Middle East, traditions surrounding food and holidays. I also like to research garb and weaponry, sometimes fighting technique, either in single combat or in larger conflicts, just to get a sense for how those things would have played out in our world at that time. I also like absorbing stories, legends, mythology from that time period. One of my favorite acquisitions in recent years is Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights by Sergio Toppi, published by Archaia Press. It’s a stunningly beautiful book, filled with retellings from the stories in Arabian Nights (or A Thousand and One Nights). It’s well worth it for the artwork alone, but also if you’re interested in Arabic tales.

What was your inspiration for the series? Was there any particular ideas, books, or events that you experienced that led to it? In particular I would love to know your inspiration for a story involving hunting 12 kings with different powers using poem riddles. It combines so many of my favorite things and I would love to know how you came up with it.

The story had a really long evolution. It took me years to develop. The basic desert city was first. The asirim, the strange mummified creatures who steal into the city each month, came very early as well, long before I knew who Çeda was or that there were in fact twelve kings. Slowly, the city and its status as a great power in the world unfolded. And I found out who Çeda was. I knew by then that I wanted it to be a story about rediscovery, and what better way for that to happen than if her mother was taken from her and if she had almost no connection to her family and her people? But as I thought about it more, I wanted there to be some connection from Çeda to her mother. That was how the book of riddles was born. Her mother had secrets. Very dangerous secrets. And she and Çeda both loved literature. What better way to pass down her mother’s secrets than through a book they both loved? Once the idea came to me, I really embraced it. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the series: this one thing, a book of poems and stories, linking mother and daughter beyond death and setting this grand tale into motion.

In general, do you have any favorite fantasy/sci-fi books? What are you reading right now?

Some recent favorites have been Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, China Miéville’s The City & The City, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. Right now I’m reading Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines on audio and Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld on ebook, and really enjoying both.

The series takes place in a beautifully realized desert setting. What is the most thirsty you’ve ever been, and how did you draw from that experience when writing these books?

I’ve loved writing about this grand desert. I’d wanted to write a desert-based fantasy for a long while. It kept showing up in my short stories and even in my first published trilogy, where the characters traveled to a vast desert in part of the final installment. More than being thirsty, I’ve drawn on the times where I’ve been in really hot settings. Try Phoenix in summer. I also lived in Southern California for five years, and went on various hikes and excursions. It’s dry down there, and those experiences helped me as well. We’re always told “write what you know” but sometimes we forget that we can both write what we know and extrapolate from tangential experiences to create a whole new experience in our books. Perhaps “borrow from what you know” would be a better way to put it.

 

Thanks again to Bradley for stopping by!

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A Veil of Spears – Unbe-veil-ably Point-iant

veil-of-spears-front-cover-smSand. It’s coarse, irritating, hot, encumbering, and all around unpleasant. I have spent a lot of time in sand, both in reality and in fantasy books. However, despite sand’s difficulties, it often provides settings of profound beauty and wonder. When it comes to books set in the desert, I have been championing one series in particular for years now: A Song Of Shattered Sand, by Bradley P. Beaulieu (whose name I just now spelled correctly on my first try for the first time ever). Now, the good news and the bad news. The good news – Bradley just released the third of six books in the Shattered Sand Series, A Veil of Spears. The bad news – I lied, there is no bad news, everything about this news is good.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, you can check out my earlier reviews from the first books here and here. These novels have not failed to place in my top books of the year whenever they come out, and I am happy to say that I am sure Veil will perform similarly. I am going to avoid talking about the plot of Veil, because I think many of you who read the site haven’t picked up this series yet (it is criminally underrated). If you need to know what happens, suffice to say that the story picks up immediately after With Blood Upon the Sand. Ceda’s war against the kings of Sharakhai has been making progress, but every time a threat is dealt with a new one seem to arise. Instead of talking about plot details let’s jump into why you should be reading this series.

I have talked in the past about how I love the setting, characters, story, magic, and other elements of the world – but as I was reading A Veil of Spears I found myself amazed with the complexity and depth of Bradley’s writing and thought this was the perfect time to talk about it. The Shattered Sand series starts with a simple quest: find the 12 poems of the 12 kings of Sharakhai – each poem detailing a king’s power and the way to kill them. Most epic fantasies would be satisfied with just this plot line, and if it was the only thing happening in the series I would likely still be reviewing it positively because it’s a blast. Ever since Harry Potter set out to find the horcruxes and Bilbo Baggins had to solve Gollum’s riddles I have had a love of collection quests and solving riddles. They tap into something primal for me from when I was first learning to read and discovering my love of fantasy, and the poems and riddles in Sharakhai are extremely well done.

However, reading A Veil of Spears you will see that the poems of the kings were just the tip of the iceberg for the Shattered Sands. The conflict has grown, new players have joined the board as both protagonists and antagonists, the scope and rules of the conflict have changed, and changed, and changed again. A Veil of Spears feels like some sort of bizzaro Matryoshka doll, where every time I open it up and look inside I find an even larger space and story. I frankly don’t understand how Bradley continues to continually expand the size of this story while keeping it so tight and well paced. His storytelling is some of the best I have read and his prose is top notch as well.

As usual, Bradley’s newest Shattered Sands novel has surpassed my high expectations and set the bar higher. A Veil of Spears has every strength of its predecessors but builds a bigger and better story than I could have imagined. This series is now halfway done, and I am giddy with excitement to see what the next three books have in store. Finally, I hope my annual “why aren’t you reading this” has continued to chisel at the resolve of the many holdouts I have met that have Twelve Kings in Sharakhai in their to read pile.

Rating: A Veil of Spears – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The City of Brass – Guess Who’s Coming To Djinner

32718027We have been getting a lot of fantasy based on the desert and Arabian/Islamic lore recently and I dig it. I think djinn are pretty rad (they usually have fire for blood, which is awesome) and I will read every book that includes them I can get my hands on. The most recent entry into this genre is S. A. Chakraborty’s, The City of Brass. The lovely people of Harper Voyager sent me an early copy of what they promise is this year’s biggest debut in exchange for an honest review, so let’s see if the book holds up to their praises.

The City of Brass blurs the lines between high fantasy and urban fantasy, as our story starts in Cairo but rapidly moves to a complete fantasy land hidden in the deserts of the Middle East. Brass follows the story of two protagonists, Nahri and Ali. Nahri is a savvy thief on the streets of Cairo with the magical ability to sense illnesses and heal wounds. Shortly after the story begins she encounters some magical beings (an ifrit who is trying to murder her and a djinn she accidentally summons trying to keep her alive) and finds out that being able to magically heal wounds is slightly abnormal. Her djinn protector, Dara, tells her she might have djinn blood in her veins and that he should take her to their legendary capital of Daevabad to find out more about her past. The other protagonist, Ali, is the youngest son/prince of the king of Daevabad and is currently training to become captain of the guard when his brother eventually ascends to the throne. Daevabad is currently in a period of unrest as tensions between full blooded djinn and human/djinn hybrids, called shafit, fight over shafit rights. Ali is a shafit sympathizer and trying to support their push for a better life, but is actively working against the interest of his father to do so.

Both the leads are fun characters with relatable flaws to keep them grounded. Ali in particular has a stick up his ass the size of a tree, and watching him loosen up and learn to take life less seriously was something I really enjoyed. Nahri’s ignorance of Djinn culture and Ali’s training to become captain both allow Chakraborty to do a lot of seamless worldbuilding in a really natural way. On top of this, the world building is fascinating, rich, and deep. There are a variety of Djinn tribes, multiple magical races, and a handful of cities that Chakraborty brings to life creating a vibrant world hidden within our own. In addition, the plot of the book feels like a well written political thriller with a multitude of twists and reveals that keep the book constantly exciting.

One thing in particular that I really enjoyed about the book has to do with family. The family dynamic and interactions that Ali has with his family was one of the most refreshing and heartwarming things I have read in awhile. Ali, his siblings, and his parents all have very different ideologies and personalities, but Chakraborty manages to paint them as a group of people who deeply love one another despite their differences instead of Game of Throne-esque where they are just waiting for the best moment to betray each other. The book does a wonderful job of painting all issues and opinions in shades of grey that I love. Ali’s conversations with his older brother and father were some of my favorite parts of the book.

While there were many things I enjoyed about The City of Brass, no book is perfect. I mentioned that I loved Ali’s family, the exception to this is his sister. Ali’s sister is underdeveloped to the point where I cannot remember the name of her character. She seemed like she had some interesting things to contribute in the small time we had with her, but she simply does not get enough development or screen time. On the other side of things, Nahri was a great lead but her story sometimes felt like it would drag a little bit. In particular, the middle of the book felt slightly repetitive as Nahri was traveling over large expanses of desert.

Summing up my thoughts, I did really enjoy The City of Brass. I feel that this debut holds up to all the hype and will likely be one of the best books of the year. Brass has a lot of heart, a rare and valuable attribute in books, but might need a touch more polish. However, this is an incredible book for a debut and I cannot wait to see what Chakraborty has for me next.

Rating: The City of Brass – 8.5/10

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