It took me a while to finally get to this third installment in Bradley Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands, but I finally managed to learn what happened after the ending of book 2, where many narrative threads were left in a state of flux, and to satisfy my burning curiosity.
Over the course of the previous two books in this series, whose scope has now grown from the initial three to six volumes, the focus broadened from Çeda’s revenge quest to a more complex political scenario of alliances and betrayals, political maneuvering and old mysteries, just as the background expanded from the fascinating city of Sharakhai to the outlying desert wastes and neighboring realms. While this has enriched the narrative, adding many more facets to it, it has also proved to be something of a mixed blessing, because at times I felt quite lost by the number of players and their conflicting or interlacing agendas, and by the revelations that came to light as Çeda’s journey progressed, so that once the gods and demons of the story’s pantheon came into play as well, interfering in a more direct way with the warring humans and their plans, I could not avoid being somewhat overwhelmed by something approaching sensory overload.
On one hand I understand how the story could not be sustained only by Çeda’s mission, since that particular narrative thread had a limited scope and it would have been difficult to carry it forward for the now increased number of books, but on the other I could not avoid the sensation – less apparent in book 2 and much stronger here – that the story sometimes takes a meandering path that feels a little… wasteful, for want of a better word: the tight pacing I encountered in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, one of the many reasons I loved that book deeply, faltered a little in the second volume and it does so a bit more in this one – at least in my perception – and I could not keep myself from worrying that the extension of the series to six volumes might ultimately weaken the strong concept at the basis of this work and also the role of the main character.
Yes, because Çeda surrenders the limelight here even more often than in book 2, and I have to admit that I missed her strong presence and her determined focus every time the point of view shifted to another character, no matter how interesting: granted, the difficult path walked by Ramahd as he aids Queen Meryam in her schemes while trying to hold on to his own humanity and basic decency is a fascinating one, just to name one example; just as the first cracks appearing in what used to be the Kings’ united front, now that the first deaths have started to upset the balance of power, look like a prelude to their downfall; or again it’s good to see how Emre, Çeda’s longtime friend and once-lover, continues his growth from a street thief to a warrior inspired by an ideal bigger than himself. Still, not one of them holds for me the same relevance as Çeda does, and every time she has to step aside and let other stories take center stage, my interest does flag a little…
That said, Çeda still remains the lynchpin on which much of the plot revolves, thanks to the inner strength that is tougher than her doubts, to her fierce loyalty and single-mindedness, even more so in this book where many of the separate factions working to undermine the Kings’ merciless rule start uniting in a common purpose, a development that promises to bring exciting consequences in the next books – especially as we get closer to the final showdown. Moreover, it’s through Çeda that we learn other anguishing aspects of the asirim’s tragedy, of the callous lie that ensnared them and led to their transformation, and of the huge reservoir of anger and hatred that moves them: as terrifying as they are, now that I know about their origins I cannot avoid a deep sense of pity for all that they have lost. And again, Çeda’s meeting with the branch of the family she never knew, because of her mother’s estrangement from them, offers a delightful pause in her harrowing search, and gives her some much needed roots to anchor her down and lessen her feeling of isolation.
These more… personal elements, however, end up being a little lost in the grander scheme of things that is taking shape as the story unfolds in all its complexity, and that’s the main reason of my slight – but unavoidable – disappointment with book 3 and the persistent sensation that ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better’: while the scope of the battle was confined to a limited number of characters, it was easier to keep abreast of them, their plots and schemes and endeavors, but now that the players on stage are more numerous, and have been joined by gods, demons, sand wyrms and whatnot, I feel a little lost and confused and wonder if what started as a good vengeance and political upheaval story will not morph into something else…
Still, I know I’m looking forward to the next installment for this series: my desire to see Çeda succeed in her quest is indeed stronger than any of the doubts I expressed above.