In part a reaction to Western European, medieval-based fantasy, arguably the two biggest trends in fantasy today are Silk Road Fantasy and Flintlock Fantasy/Mannerpunk. I’ll talk about the latter tomorrow when I review Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. Today I review Brad Beaulieu’s wonderful new Silk Road Fantasy Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.
Silk Road Fantasy, to keep it simple, is fantasy set in or heavily based on the Middle East, India, and Central Asia (basically the territory covered by Islamic traders on what were really silk roads). Twelve Kings is set in a secondary world in the city of Sharakhai and the surrounding deserts. The city, its culture, the magic and the bestiary have a very heavy Arabic and otherwise Middle Eastern influence. Much of what is at the heart of Silk Road Fantasy is captured in this description of Sharakhai, “the desert’s amber jewel”: “If the four kingdoms surrounding Sharakhai were a great wheel—Mirea, Qaimir, Malasan, and the Thousand Territories of Kundhun—then Sharakhai was surely its hub, and the spice market reflected this: a veritable palette of cultures from a thousand leagues in any direction.” Where medieval Europe was a very small place, the setting of Silk Road Fantasy is large.
Her greaves, her bracers, her heavy battle skirt. And finally her breastplate. All of them had once been dyed white—the color of a wolf’s bared teeth—but now the armor was so well used that much of the leather’s natural brown shown through. Well and good, Çeda thought. It felt used. Lived in. Kissed by battle. Exactly the way she liked it.
She picked up her bright steel helm and set it on her lap. She stared into the iron mask fixed across the front—a mask of a woman’s face, cold and expressionless in the face of battle. Affixed to the top of the helm was a wolf’s pelt, teeth bared, muzzle resting along the crown.
Twelve Kings is very much the story of Rhonda Rousey Çeda. The White Wolf of Sharakhai. Pit fighter extraordinaire. And sworn to vengeance against the twelve Kings (capital K for a reason) who rule Sharakhai with an iron fist. Most of the story is told from Çeda’s perspective, either in the present day (such as it is) and in flashbacks to several years before. We find out how Çeda came to the pits. We find out why Çeda is so close to Emre, her current roommate and long-time running partner. We find out Çeda’s connection to the white wolf. But most of all we learn about Çeda and her mother. It’s that mother-daughter relationship—something focused on too seldom in fantasy—that it at the heart of the book. Çeda’s mother surreptitiously fought the Kings and it eventually cost her her life, strung upside down in front of the King’s palaces with “whore” and “false witness” carved onto her naked body, along with a mysterious symbol that haunts Çeda.
All of this is set against a rich world. On nights the two moons are full, the twisted asirim roam the streets of Sharakhai plucking the chosen from their homes and the adichara—with its performance-enhancing petals and deadly poisoned thorns—blooms. The Kings have weapons told of in stories with names like Night’s Kiss. The Kings have titles tied to their powers like the King of Shadows and the King of Thorns and the Jackal King. The residents of Sharakhai fear to speak ill of the Kings lest the King of Whispers hear them and an attack on a King or the Blade Maidens who guard them is answered with bodies strung up like Çeda’s mother. There is a witch who lives across the sands that surround Sharakhai, sands that traders sail like the seas. Çeda’s mother, the Kings, everyone has dark secrets. The Kings are nigh immortal, with their power rooted in a dark pact made with the gods hundreds of years before. But they have weaknesses. And Çeda has a poem in a book passed to her by her mother that may hold that secret.
Twelve Kings is epic fantasy, but it is very much the epic fantasy of heavy worldbuilding. The epic fantasy of intricate magic systems, of complex cultures, of detailed food and dress. The story, on the other hand, is small for now. It is told mostly from Çeda’s perspective, with a few exceptions, most notably for one of the Kings. And the scale is still small, with the focus on a single city. But it promises to grow.
I received a complimentary copy of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai through NetGalley.