Çeda, now a Blade Maiden in service to the kings of Sharakhai, trains as one of their elite warriors, gleaning secrets even as they send her on covert missions to further their rule. She knows the dark history of the asirim—that hundreds of years ago they were enslaved to the kings against their will—but when she bonds with them as a Maiden, chaining them to her, she feels their pain as if her own. They hunger for release, they demand it, but with the power of the gods compelling them, they find the yokes around their necks unbreakable.
Çeda could become the champion they’ve been waiting for, but the need to tread carefully has never been greater. After the victory won by the Moonless Host in the Wandering King’s palace, the kings are hungry for blood. They scour the city, ruthless in their quest for revenge. Unrest spreads like a plague, a thing Emre and his new allies in the Moonless Host hope to exploit, but with the kings and their god-given powers, and the Maidens and their deadly ebon blades, there is little hope of doing so.
When Çeda and Emre are drawn into a plot of the blood mage, Hamzakiir, they sail across the desert to learn the truth, and a devastating secret is revealed, one that may very well shatter the power of the hated kings. They plot quickly to take advantage of it, but it may all be undone if Çeda cannot learn to navigate the shifting tides of power in Sharakhai and control the growing anger of the asirim that threatens to overwhelm her.
I loved Twelve Kings in Sharakhai – I spent the month after I’d read it insisting that everyone else had to read it too. So when I got the chance to read the sequel, With Blood Upon the Sand, I was so excited! I really wanted to love it – I expected to love it – but I’m afraid I couldn’t get into it at all.
Part of my struggle with it was that it’s just so very long. It’s difficult to make a judgement about the strength of the narrative as a whole because I can’t hold it all in my head at the same time. Still, it felt like there was a lack of focus, and for a long time in the middle I was floundering, directionless, as if I were lost in the sands surrounding Sharakhai, without any hope of finding my way back to the arrow-sharp energy of the city. I plodded through scenes with no real idea of where I was heading, and at times it was hard to continue reading.
With Blood Upon the Sand features heavy use of flashbacks. I’ve seen these used to great effect in other books (it most reminded me of the Castings Trilogy), but it just didn’t do it for me here. I didn’t feel that what we learned from them was a big enough pay-off for the time they took to get through – there’s a grand reveal regarding Çeda’s family connections, but although the flashback scenes gave some context to this, Çeda could have come to this conclusion without them. There’s also the question of their source. It’s revealed fairly late on that Çeda had lost these memories – or at least some of them, I’m unclear on this. When they are restored to her, we don’t get much of what we don’t already know, and it was frustrating that the reveals here were somewhat underwhelming.
Don’t get me wrong. There were things I liked about it. Davud’s nightmarish adventures out in the desert reminded me of the fast, sharp narrative of the first book, and I enjoyed the scenes where Çeda continued to learn with the Blade Maidens. We learn more about the kings, and find that perhaps their hold on power is more tenuous than everyone assumes. And we learn more about the asirim’s rage and sorrow, and we come to know a few as individuals. That gorgeous moment at the pin-drop before a massacre when Nalamae leads Çeda to the most wonderful, poetic solution. And Ramahd and Maryam’s story, perhaps the most heartbreaking narrative in the book, illustrates the painful truth of how harsh the desert can be, and how lonely, and how much it can take from you in one swift miscalculation.
But I’m not on fire about the central narrative in the way that I was with Twelve Kings. Perhaps there was too much going on to really allow the reveals to truly hit home. It was difficult for me to follow the threads, and be certain that they all make sense, and are necessary. Certainly, Çeda’s past could be streamlined in order to make her present feel more urgent. I can see that others would love it – if you are a fan of sprawling epic fantasy, the power of immortal kings and the fatal harshness of the desert that encapsulates it all, then there is every reason that you will love this. But I’m afraid that it didn’t grab me in the way that I wanted it to – in the way that I needed it to, given how much further there is to go with this series, and how much truth there is left to uncover.
Everyone is a POC, and there are about three separate fantasy nations represented to various extents. I didn’t spot any issues with prejudice between them. There is one point when it seems as if two of the kings are in a relationship, but it turns out to not be the case – almost minus points there really, for raising my hopes. Also one of the Blade Maidens in Çeda’s hand is mourning her lost love, another Blade Maiden – but again, I wouldn’t really point at this as meaningful representation, since mostly she’s a Sad Gay who leads Çeda into a situation that might mean you could read the protagonist as bi? I don’t know, I wasn’t the biggest fan of how that scene played out, to be honest.
With Blood Upon the Sand by Bradley P. Beaulieu was published by DAW in February 2017.
I received a free copy in exchange for a review.