Twelve Kings (In Sharakhai) by Bradley Beaulieu is the first book in a new epic fantasy series called the Song Of Shattered Sands. The series follows Çeda, a pit fighter whose mother was killed by the twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai, a grand city in the middle of a desert, as she uncovers the secrets her mother left behind so that she might get revenge on the Kings.
This simple premise was enough to sell me the book, but the story is actually far more complicated than that. Çeda is not the only one seeking to kill the Kings: so is a ruthless rebel group called the Moonless Host, who in turn are being sought by Ramahd and Meryam, the husband and sister of a foreign princess killed by the Host. Conflict arises when Ramahd appears to ally himself with Çeda, while Çeda’s best friend Emre defects to the Moonless Host, whom Çeda considers an enemy despite the fact that they have the same goals of ridding Sharakhai of the Kings.
It’s set to be the next big epic fantasy series, but does it live up to the hype? Should you pick it up?
I picked up Twelve Kings without having read the first page – in fact, without having ever heard of it before. I mean, it had a cool cover, and the blurb promised action, a badass protagonist, and secrets. Why wouldn’t I have picked it up?
Unfortunately, for me, this book did not deliver on its promises. I spent half the book persuading myself to keep reading because even if I wasn’thooked yet, I would get hooked and then I’d love it, and then the other half of the book persuading myself to keep reading just for the sake of being able to write a full, honest review of it.
It took me over a year to finally reach the last page.
As it turns out, a number of reasons. If you don’t want to read them all, feel free to skip down to the section titled “The Verdict” at the bottom.
Promises and Progress (or lack thereof)
Before I go on, I need to discuss two things: promises and a sense of progress. I’ve been watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on writing fantasy recently, and th
ese are, according to him, two of the most important aspects of a good book that readers will find satisfying. They’re pretty self-explanatory: you need to make promises that will be fulfilled (eg, in a romance book, the love interests are always expected to get together, otherwise the reader will be disappointed), and the reader needs to feel a sense of progress as they read.
This book only confirmed that I agree wholeheartedly with Sanderson on this, because Beaulieu did not deliver either on the promises that the blurb made me, or on a sense of progress, and these are the two main reasons I did not get along with this book.
As previously mentioned, I expected this book to be action-packed and badass. Not just from the blurb, but also from the first two chapters, which include a fight scene and a sex scene. But the rest of the book was slow, and even the fight scene at the start was too long and detailed for me to enjoy it. As for the sex scene… Ugh. There was no chemistry between 19-year-old Çeda and the much-older man she slept with, and it was written rather mechanically, so I just found it unexpected, out-of-place, and frankly weird.
It also then set up the expectation that Çeda would be, perhaps, a flirtatious character, or that she would become involved in a romantic relationship, or desire to be in a romantic relationship, or even just to have sex without the romance, as was the case with that sex scene at the beginning. And yet here is another place where Beaulieu either did not fulfill his promises, or made entirely the wrong promises, because Çeda was, became, or wanted none of those things.
But that is beside the point: yes, this was unnecessary, but it was also minor. My main complaint here is that the book was slow. Most definitely not the fast-paced, action-packed story I was expecting.
A slow story would, of course, have been fine had I had the sense of progress I wanted. The occasional significant breakthrough would have sufficed. Instead, Çeda only ever seemed to make baby-steps in her boring research, and nothing was actually figured out until maybe 30 pages before the end of this 580-page book.
Plus, the slow pace of the main plot (further dampened by the complete lack of tension – I’ll discuss that fully later) was continuously interrupted by flashbacks that often didn’t add a huge amount to the story, and passages from other characters’ perspectives, most of which didn’t make sense until later, and some of which still don’t make sense now that I’ve finished the book.
Admittedly, yes, this probably did have something to do with the fact that I forgot things whenever I put this book down (often for weeks at a time), but then again, if this book had hooked me from the start (or at all), then this would not have happened.
It’s All About The Details
Beaulieu sacrificed fast pacing in favour of details: Twelve Kings was chocked full of details, but also bogged down by them. Scenes that should have been high-impact were instead textbook-level dull, thanks to Beaulieu’s insistence on writing long-winded, detail-ridden passages, even during action-packed scenes.
This wasn’t the only detail-related problem I had with this book.
While reading books involving a mystery, like this one, I like to be able to make theories about what the answer to the mystery might be. If it’s a good, well-plotted book then the likelihood is that all my theories will be at least partially wrong, but the correct answer will make sense. In this book, however, some of the information needed to solve the riddle was not revealed until the moment Çeda solved it herself; she knew this information but the reader did not. I can’t help but feel cheated by this: Beaulieu denied me not only the enjoyment of trying to figure things out for myself, but also the satisfaction of that eureka moment when it was solved (instead, he gave readers an “oh… that’s it?” moment).
Details relating to the riddle weren’t the only ones which were badly dispersed. Some details, usually worldbuilding-related, should have been mentioned earlier; by the time they were mentioned, I had to readjust my view of the world slightly to accommodate them. And while these details were mentioned too late, others were mentioned too sparsely: I often struggled to picture Sharakhai due to the lack of explanation of various things. I also found it quite difficult to picture many of the characters: while details of their appearances were dropped here and there, they weren’t described in enough depth when they were introduced.
Speaking of characters…
It was this which I first thought was the problem, the reason that I kept putting this book down and not picking it up again for weeks: I simply didn’t feel connected to the characters. At all. The story was interesting; I wanted to know what Çeda’s mother’s riddle meant; I wanted to know what all these strange goings on had to do with each other… But because I simply wasn’t invested in the characters, I had little desire to read this despite wanting to know what was going to happen.
I’m not really sure why I didn’t take much of a liking to any of the characters, and to be honest, I don’t particularly fancy rereading this book to find out.
Lack of Tension
Another problem caused by the detail-ridden prose and the slow pace is that I simply couldn’t find any tension in this book, neither in the opening fight scene, nor at the climax, which all seemed to be over rather quickly (and it went either just as expected or was completely out-of-the-blue).
Between my lack of attachment to the characters and the lack of tension, I think we have the answer as to why Twelve Kings never hooked me.
This is a slow-paced, complicated story, but one with a lot of intrigue, and I certainly think it has a lot of potential. The world is an interesting and unique one, and many reviewers praise Twelve Kings for it. In fact, I appear to be in the minority in rating it badly: you can easily find positive reviews on its Goodreads page.
But I struggled to engage with the characters, and with no tension and the prose so bogged down with details, I simply did not get into this book. To top it all off, I didn’t even get the satisfaction I wanted upon finishing it; I was promised hordes of scandalous secrets, and was instead given one single, slightly disappointing secret and a fair amount of confusion.
For me, the fact that I did not enjoy reading it far outweighs my desire to know what happens in the end, so I will not be reading the rest of the series. Especially not if I’ll have to read twelve books to discover all the Kings’ secrets!
So, my final verdict is that I do not recommend Twelve Kings.
Have you read Twelve Kings? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below!
And don’t forget, if you’d like to see the rest of my book reviews, you can find a list of them here!