A Critique/Review of ‘The Song of the Shattered Sands’ series by Bradley P. Beaulieu

I did a booktube/youtube version of this review. Click here if you want to watch it.

I’ve been reading this series since the first book came out many moons ago. I’ve been a fan of the author for a while now. I used to listen to his podcast, and I also read his first series. I just finished the final two book in this series, and I have to say that it did not disappoint. I heartily recommend you read this series.

Here are my prior reviews for the books in this series.

Spoilers Below! I can’t really review this series without giving some light spoilers. I’ll try to keep the spoilers about unimportant reveals from the first few books, to keep the narrative largely unspoiled. You’ve been warned.

Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing. And finally, I’m probably spelling the names wrong. I listened to the audiobooks.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

Like I said, I’m a fan of this author’s. I am going to give this series a glowing review. Someone who did not enjoy this series would not have read all six books in the series. Therefore my glowing review suffers from confirmation bias. But just because I’m biased, does not mean I’m wrong.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I love so much about this series. From the characters, to the soft magic system, to the vivid setting, to the author’s prose, this series jumps off the page and right into my heart. The fast paced plots and the deeply passionate characters make reading this series deeply investing.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (A-)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This series begins as a revenge quest. The Twelve Kings of Sharhakai killed the protagonist Ceda’s mother, and she’ll stop at nothing to kill the Twelve Kings of Sharhakai. Over time, as the series wears on, new villains enter the picture as the outside world intrudes upon unchanging Sharhakai. With these new villains, Ceda is forced to expand her limited worldview, and come to reckon with the fact that the Twelve Kings were holding the chaos of the world at bay. At the very climax of the series, a hero undergoes a believable corruption arc, becoming the series final villain, and all the remaining heroes and villains must team up in an enemy-of-my-enemy alliance against the monster who would kill them all.

How was this concept executed? I thought it was executed seamlessly. What starts as a simple revenge quest gets expanded upon, deepened, as the secrets of the Amber Jewel of Sharhakai are revealed. And yet what could become a sprawling mess, never did. In my experience, too many Epic Fantasy series suffer from scope-creep, where the author loses sight of what is most interesting by introducing too many characters and plot arcs. Not here. Through judicious use of character deaths and interweaving plot arcs, the series never becomes a cluttered mess. Each book tells it’s own story, while advancing the plot of the series as a whole.

And in the end, Ceda marks all twelve names off her list.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (A)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

Ceda (pronounced Cheda according to the audiobook) is the primary protagonist. She is a street urchin of mixed parentage. Her mother was a member of a community repressed by gods and kings. Her father was one of the kings. Through her father’s line, Ceda gained access to the ancestral magics the kings used to control the city, while from her mother she gained allies and deep secrets.

Ceda is forced to come to terms with her mixed heritage. The author uses Ceda as a lens to explore the levels of Sharhakai society. Using Ceda mingling with father’s line, the author introduces the reader to the high society of the House of Kings, humanizing the kings and the aristocracy of Sharhakai in the eyes of the reader. Using Ceda mingling with the Moonless Host who oppose the kings, we see the desert people in their natural habitat: their clans, their wanderings, their sand-ships, their desert witches. On both sides, Ceda finds family- something she’s lacked since her mother’s death. Ceda also has a history as a pit fighter and black market smuggler, so when Ceda mingles with the grimy underbelly of the city we get to see the kingpins and demonic opium-dens up close and personal.

I liked Ceda as a protagonist. I sometimes complain that the protagonist of a book doesn’t have much of a personality, as if the author is making the protagonist as vanilla as possible so the reader can slip into the character easier (think Harry Potter, for example). That’s not the case with Ceda. Ceda takes risks, makes mistakes, and is sometimes a bit of a jerk.

Emre starts as Ceda’s fellow street urchin/smuggler and Ceda’s initial love interest, but their fates diverge from there. Emre winds up in the upper echelons of the Moonless Host, where he has to contend with the power politics of the desert tribes opposed to the king’s rule. Where Ceda opposes the kings in the city, Emre opposes them in the desert. I liked how their paths diverged, and the once-lovers grew apart.

MAJOR SPOILERS! Davood and Anela were my favorite of the protagonists, because of their introduction. Davood’s introduction is both highly spoilery and also one of my favorite parts of the series. Davood was once a mild-mannered college student, who helped Ceda from time to time by reading books in the library as she sought old lore. Anela was a friend of his in his class. And then the vampire wizard Hamzaakir attacked the college, kidnapping Davood, Anela and their entire graduating class.

The vampire wizard used blood magic on the class, to transform them into a monstrous army to serve him in his quest to conquer Sharhakai. Their entire graduating class was torturously transformed, while Davood and Anela was stuck in the hold of the ship waiting to be mutilated next. When the time came for Hamzaakir to kill Davood, he instead spared him. You see, Hamzaakir accidentally infected Davood with vampirism. Seeing in Davood a kindred spirit, he frees him.

I really liked their introduction. It both served to flesh out their personalities, but also Hamzaakir, humanizing the horrifying vampire antagonist.

I could keep going. I want to talk about the Tattered Prince and his demonic possession by Rumiesh. I want to talk about the scheming King Ihsan’s POV chapters, and how he transforms from being a villainous snake to being a hero. I want to talk about Ramahd, and how he gradually loses faith in Princess Meryam. But I don’t want to bore you, so suffice it to say they’re awesome.

But I do want to talk about Meryam. And SPOILERS!

Meryam undergoes a series-long corruption arc. She begins the series wanting revenge on her enemies, just like Ceda. Where Ceda wants to kill the Kings, Meryam wants to kill the Moonless Host after they killed her sister. Meryam is a vampire wizard, mirroring Davood. And yet where Ceda is willing to find compromise and work with her enemies to free Sharhakai from tyranny, Meryam is stalwart in her hate and refusal to compromise. Where Davood uses his vampire magics ethically, Meryam… does not.

At first, Meryam doesn’t seem too bad. She remains laser-focused on her goal of revenge. But book by book she compromises her ethics a little bit at a time. She pushes the envelope just a little bit in each book. At first, she’s just making deals with drug dealers. Then she makes a deal with a demon for the sake of power. Then, she assassinates her own father when he doesn’t want revenge and tries to force her to stop her revenge quest. Then she mind-controls Hamzaakir (you know how Hamzaakir tortured Davood’s friends? That was on her orders.). Then she takes over Sharhakai, and uses her black magic in an attempt to commit genocide. And it only gets worse from there.

In the fifth book, Meryam gets her revenge… and it’s not enough for her. She finally realizes that she was lying to herself all along. She never wanted revenge; she wanted power. Revenge was an excuse she told herself so she didn’t have to feel guilty about seeking that power.

In the sixth and final book, Meryam takes the gloves off and stops giving an f*** about excuses. She’s out for blood. And it’s grand.

In general (for both heroes and villains), well-portrayed characters should change over time. Very good characters should lie to themselves, because that lie will tell the reader a) who the character is and b) who the character views themselves as. According to Faulkner, ‘The only story worth telling is the human heart at war with itself.’ Meryam is a heart at war with herself. Meryam lied to herself about her revenge quest, because she was too faint-hearted to admit her own ambitions. From this we get a good image of who Meryam is: a monster with a soul. And over the course of this series, the monster loses her soul.

The author did impressive work with Meryam. I started the series with empathy for her. I honestly didn’t expect her to wind up being the Big Bad. She is the foil to Ceda and Davood, showing how if the heroes weren’t temperate they could go evil very easily.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (A+)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This is a six book series. I am not going to go in depth about each one. Overall, each book in the series has high points and low points. Comparing this to Wheel of Time, none of the books are a ‘slog.’ Bringing this book back to Ceda’s revenge list, at least one person gets scratched off the list in each book. Similarly, the other plot lines (the gods plotline, the Moonless Host plotline, the Tattered Prince/Rumaiesh plotline, the House of Maidens plotline, etc etc) also are advanced. The author makes use of frequent combat and action, usually ending each book in a climactic battle. In these ways, the author shows respect for the traditional structures of the Epic Fantasy genre.

I will complement the author about the meta-structure of the series as a whole. Early books are much smaller scale than latter books. As each book expands in scope, the reader is introduced to more concepts, characters and factions a little bit at a time, so as to not overwhelm the reader all at once. This increase in scope naturally changes the narrative from a strict revenge tale, to being about freedom fighting, military campaigns and fantasy politicking.

Was the series perfect as a whole? No. In many of the books I complained that they were too fast paced. The author wrote a six book series, but each book was paced like it was a trilogy- meaning the author rarely stopped to smell the roses. I felt that the author should have taken more time to linger on the characters and setting, letting them grow and develop a bit more. The series was tightly plotted, jumping from action set piece directly to the buildup to the next action set piece.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B+)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

‘The Song of the Shattered Sands’ is a six book epic fantasy series which takes place in the fabled land of Sharhakai. Sharhakai is a small desert kingdom, made fabulously wealthy by being a trading hub between four major empires. The four neighboring empires hunger to conquor the jewel of the amber desert, but for four centuries the empires haven’t dared. Four centuries before the beginning of the book, the twelve kings of Sharhakai forged a dark covenant with the gods. The gods bestowed immortality upon the kings and gave them both magic and an army of zombies. Ever since, the immortal kings have ruled the amber jewel with an iron fist, and none of the neighboring empires have dared invade.

But over those following four hundred years, corruption has took root in the heart of the House of Kings. The twelve kings who once stood united now seek to assassinate their brother kings and rule their kingdom, alone. Meanwhile in the desert, the rebellious Moonless Host seek to overthrow the kings, while monstrous demons and vampiric sorcerers plot to take back what the kings stole from them in ages past. And in lands beyond, the four empires hunger for the vast wealth of the desert.

This series is a slowly escalating story of rebellion against a morally compromised government. The primary protagonist, Ceda, is on a quest for revenge against the Twelve Kings in Sharhakai. Ceda’s mother was killed and mutilated by the Kings who rule the Amber Jewel, and she’ll only be happy when all of them are dead. The problem? The kings are immortal, possess great wealth and power, are supernaturally strong, and have deadly magics. And did I mention the army of zombies they have at their command?

Over the centuries many have tried to bring them down, and all have failed- Ceda’s mother included. If Ceda’s going to do the impossible- literally defying the gods by slaying their chosen kings- she’ll need to fight with her brain as much as her sword arm. But Ceda has an edge: when the gods gave the kings power, they also weakened the kings with curses. Ceda has access to the secret knowledge of how to exploit the king’s curses. With daring and luck, she can bring the House of Kings down.

The first few books in the series are a street-level tale of adventure, relying on sword-and-sorcery tropes as much as tropes of mystical adventures and horror. As the series goes on, it metamorphoses.

After Ceda successfully kills multiple kings, the foreign empires which surround Sharhakai smell blood in the water. Sensing that the Amber Jewel is weak, four nations invade the desert at once. Armies of golem, kirin and blood sorcerers strike into the heart of the desert, further destabilizing the realm. In the many-ways scramble for power which follows, unlikely bedfellows are made. After foreigners gain the throne of the Amber Jewel, Ceda must ally with the enemy of her enemy in order to free her people- even if the enemy of her enemy are some of the Twelve Kings themselves.

And set against the background of this, is a tale of blackest magic and blood sacrifice, unleashed vampires and covetous demons. Ceda must unravel ancient riddles to learn how to slay the immortal kings, free the zombie army from servitude, and to defeat the cruel gods once and for all.

The series’ stakes start small: just Ceda and her friends lives are on the line. But as each book passes the stakes are raised, until in the end every life in the desert is threatened. This gradual raising of the stakes felt like a natural consequence of the gradually expanding scope of the plot, and not like the author was artificially raising the stakes.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A-)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME), SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

The author’s use of a soft magic system really helped bring life to the setting as a whole. The soft magic system involved using strange reagents harvested from beasts and demons, poisonous trees and eldritch fungi. This complemented the author’s prose style; each introduced magical element was gorgeously described, breathing a vibrancy of life to the setting. For these harvest reagents to exist, so must ecosystems of beats and trees and fungi. The prose felt alive.

The same goes for the setting. When the characters sail on their sand-skimming sailing ships, travelling across the desert, you can feel the sand beat against their faces. When you’re in Sharhakai’s markets, you can smell the hookah smoke and the nearby spice market. Osmun’s arena pits smell like sweat, blood and contraband. The Collegia library smells of mold, old dust and long forgotten secrets.

Reading this books feels like you’re travelling to foreign shores, to enjoy the cardamom tea and araq alcohol. But you might not want to visit, as demonic bats with lampray mouths take to the air at night, and every six weeks the Kings send out their zombie army to cull human sacrifices to fuel their dark magics. If you’re rich, you’ll live the high life in the Amber Jewel… but if not, you might end up chopped up for parts for a wizard to use as reagents.

I give the Authorial Voice: (A-)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

Now for me to complain a little bit. This series had two audiobook narrators. The first three books had one narrator, and the last three had another. Both narrators are good, weaving a spellbinding tale with only their voices. However, if it will bug you that there’s a switch midway through the series, you’ll want to read this one with your eyes instead. I loved both narrators so I’ll give this an A-, however I know after the Dresden Files controversy switching narrators can be controversial, so I’ll mention it here.

I give the Audiobook: (A-)


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • People who want to read a completed Epic Fantasy series.
  • Soft magic, but lots of it. Most of it involves blood sacrifice, demonic pacts, arcane riddles, ancient secrets or the use of strange reagents from far and wide.
  • Lots of combat. Most of it is swords, but there is some magical duels and also some sailing ship combat. No guns. (The sailing ships sail sand dunes.)
  • People who want to read a Middle-Eastern styled epic. Sharhakai always struck me as being vaguely Ottoman, while it is surrounded by a China-like empire, a Mongolia-like empire, an Europe-like Empire, and an Empire whose inspiration I didn’t quite pick up.
  • Grimdark adjacent. No sexual violence. No over-the-top gore. There is complex factional politics, with life-or-death on the line.

SUMMARY

I enjoyed this series. I am very much in the target audience for this one, as I enjoy reasonably fast paced stories and soft magic and political chicanery in my fantasy novels. If that sounds fun to you, you should read this too.


Literary Rating: Between Good and Great (On a scale of Perfect, Great, Good, Fun but Flawed, Not Recommended)

Enjoyment Rating: 5 OUT OF 5 STARS (Enjoyment means two things: how much fun did I have reading this book? And how much did this book make me think about real world issues?)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Epic Fantasy, high Fantasy, Adult, Adventure, Middle Eastern Fantasy

Similar books:

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

  1. Assassin’s Apprentice
  2. When Jackals Storm the Walls
  3. Sharpe’s Tiger
  4. A Review of ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ by P. Djeli Clark
  5. Why you should read ‘Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature’ by Michael D. C. Drout
  6. A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir
  7. A Review of ‘The Book of Rumi’ by Rumi
  8. A Review of ‘Unsouled’ by Will Wight
  9. A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce
  10. A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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