Given that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was one of last year’s biggest revelations for me, I was naturally eager to read its sequel, and in that respect With Blood Upon the Sand did not disappoint, expanding on the world and characters whose foundations had been laid in the first book.
The story resumes with a high-adrenaline scene in which we see the protagonist Çeda trying to assassinate another one of the Kings ruling Sharakhai: the discovery of a terrifying piece of the puzzle she’s attempting to unravel leads to failure, and to a harrowing escape through the city’s meandering alleys she knows so well from her past as a street urchin. It’s a great way of reconnecting to Çeda, a wonderful character that captivated me from the very start with her mixture of strength and frailties, determination and failings brought on by a sometimes too-narrow focus on her goal.
The first book was centered on Çeda’s meticulous work toward infiltrating the Blade Maidens – the elite fighters protecting the Kings – so she could be nearer the people responsible for her mother’s death, and close enough to carry out her plans for vengeance; here she has finally obtained her place among the Maidens and moves the first steps toward acceptance as her training progresses, and this causes the first cracks in her armor, raising many doubts that force Çeda to question, if not her motives, her perception of the people she has always viewed as enemies.
As a street rogue, and later as a fighter in the pits where she gained her fame as the unbeatable White Wolf, Çeda had always been able to count on the support of allies and comrades, and on the unfailing closeness of her childhood friend Emre; now she is doubly isolated, as a newcomer in an elite regiment where she has to prove herself day after day, and as a double agent needing to hide her goals, and this weighs heavily on her mind – not least because some of the overtures she receives from her fellow Maidens are sincerely offered, causing Çeda to examine herself under a different light. This adds new, welcome facets to the character as her dilemma is complicated further by exposure to a Maiden’s daily duties, that bring Çeda to see different aspects of life in Sharakhai: for example, when the Moonless Host – a resistance movement bent on destroying the Kings, and therefore aligned in some ways with Çeda’s purpose – effects a shocking attack on the city’s Collegia scholars, she sees firsthand the suffering brought on by the Host’s actions and is forced to witness the price that others have to pay for freedom from the tyranny of the Kings, and to wonder if her need for vengeance might not have to take second place to more pressing and more important concerns.
It’s a fascinating analysis, and the kind of dilemma that many revolutionary fighters have brought to the table in the real world as well – and for Çeda the problem is compounded by a new factor: once bonded, as custom requires, with the asirim, the fell creatures used by the Kings as shock troops (where ‘shock’ and ‘terror’ are not mere words…), she learns more about their origins – one of the most staggering revelations of this story – and finds herself attuned to their pain and rage for the prolonged slavery the asirim have endured, to the point that at times she ends being controlled by those feelings instead of being the one controlling and channeling that very anger. Loss of certainties, loss of focus, and the awareness that the world cannot be reduced to black-or-white convictions, seem to pile many doubts on Çeda’s shoulders, and as the situation becomes more complicated we learn more about the world in which the novels are set.
Once Çeda’s role in the story has been firmly established, the author widens his scope in this book to encompass other people and other places: first, the Kings come to the fore as something other than semi-mythical figures whose alliance with the gods granted them eternal life and unimaginable powers. They are revealed here as people who don’t always work in synchrony, but rather have hidden agendas whose byzantine ramifications reach far and wide: at some point, a quite unexpected revelation changes any perceptions we might have held until then, and sheds a very different light on the way the Kings assumed power. Never has the maxim about history being rewritten by the victors been more true…
Other players come on stage as well: the Moonless Host and its leader Macide; the powerful blood mage Hamzakiir; and old acquaintances as Juvaan, or Rahmad with his sister in law Meryam, take on added substance and depth as they play more pivotal roles in the unfolding story.
The narrative remains as fascinating as ever, its very difference from the usual fantasy settings being the foremost quality that sets it apart from the others: the unforgiving desert surrounding the cities, the ships that travel on the sands, their sails wind-driven, the fascinating – and dangerous – creatures that people the endless waste, all contribute to paint an enthralling background that comes alive under the reader’s eyes. Unfortunately, some of that same wind seems to elude the story’s virtual sails toward the middle of the book: more than once I found myself struggling with the pace in that section of the novel, where the momentum that had carried it so far appeared to have been mired in quicksand. For a moment I thought – I feared – that the story might not pick up its former speed and would fall victim of the dreaded “middle book syndrome”, but to my relief the events evolved in such a way that they regained their former energy, leading to a breath-taking finale that was both exhilarating and satisfying.
Now that some of the characters, especially Çeda, have come to find themselves quite far from their planned routes, my curiosity and eagerness for the next book are at even higher levels than they were at the end of the first volume. This is indeed a series not to be missed…