With Blood Upon the Sand is the second full length novel in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s “The Song of the Shattered Sands” series. I was very impressed by the first entry in the series, and the collection of short stories which came out shortly afterwards and served as a prequel. So my hopes were high going into this one – and, not to give the game away, I think it came out rather well.
We’re back in the shifting sands around the city of Sharakai for this second novel. It’s still startlingly evocative, carrying a sense of the Arabian Nights, laced with blood and dark magic. The desert is a livening ocean, an uncaring environment happy to swallow the unprepared. There’s some more use of sand skiffs here, using the winds of the desert to drive ships across the dunes for trade and diplomacy. But the desert is still a stark place. It has a sense of mystery to it as well when the moon shines over the sands, there are darker things stirring – blood mages, tribes of resistance fighters, supernatural creatures – all shifting out of the shadows.
A seeming bulwark against the eddies of change embodied in the desert, the city of Sharakai has come to life again. Tensions between the forces of the Kings, the mage-lords of the city, and the larger population of the city seem to be growing by the day. It’s an environment that lets Beaulieu explore and expose the causes of that sort of tension – as the authorities crack down on a population by emphasising their power, they drive members of that population into further acts of rebellion, often assisted by third parties. His cycle leads into more extreme actions, and even where most of those on all sides are working with the best of intentions, the results can still be bloody. There’s some interesting thoughts here on inherited grudges, a sense of tensions from injustices going back generations. There’s also a further exploration of the historical atrocities which left the Kings in power in Sharakai, and whether the price paid for a life and future in the past is considered acceptable by any of the participants in the present. All of this provides for a rich, lively, believable setting – a sense of a greater, fascinating world happening around our protagonist.
Speaking of protagonist, we’re back with Ceda, the heroine-of-sorts from the last book. She’s now operating within the elite troops of the Kings, and that’ having an impact on her worldview. There’s a focus here, and a sense of living on the edge, which permeates through all of her interactions. At the same time, she’s being forced to understand the situation from the position of forces she’s been struggling against – watching the consequences of guerrilla actions, trying to maintain order on a rapidly sparking powderkeg. If Ceda had few illusions before, they’re now fully lost under the mask which she has to wear. Ceda is, however, a clever woman, and one with a good degree of self-awareness; she struggles against both the external situation – where much of the conflict seems to be wrapped in history – and the internal, as she tries to conquer or control her own demons. If she’s a little quieter now, slightly more calculating, that’s no bad thing – and her meditations on friendship, on the way that those around her can fall into and out of her life, and whether the ties that bind them really do – are both heartbreaking and fascinating.
She’s joined by a whole cast of other characters, of course. We can see a bit more of the Twelve Kings, individuals corrupted by power, or using it to do what is necessary, or, perhaps, neither – their agenda is clearer here, but no less byzantine. Then there’s the forces of the tribes, desperate to tear down centuries of oppression; Macide, their erstwhile leader, and his colleagues, are quickly ramping up their game. The narrative wants to ask us what price is too cruel to pay for freedom, and Macide and the rest of the rebels are a piece of the answer. Though they don’t have the same level of screen time as Ceda, these rebels are still an intriguing bunch. The same might be said for Ceda’s new associates in the Kings elite troops – here there are smaller stories to share, likes, dislikes, old loves, older mistakes. There’s a plethora of characters on display here, and most of them end up doing more than a few unpleasant things – but it’s to the credit of their characterisation that they’re never just monsters. Blood magicians, yes. Extremists? Absolutely. Oppressive tyrants? Sure. But each carries around their own story to explain why they’re the hero – and if we only see the edges of that story, still the book makes us feel for them. Sharakai isn’t a place holding tight to black and white morality – but one where everyone may be justified, and also wrong. The characters embody that – complex, flawed, often brittle people, doing what they think is best, and often seeing it end badly, spiral out of control – or both. They are, in that way, real people, and their complexity and their flaws make their struggles both more human and very real.
The plot – well, as ever, no spoilers. Ceda is trying to work out how to deal with who she is now, and decide what it is that she wants – be it revolution, catharsis, or – well, anything else. In between her struggles to decide who she is, some of her erstwhile comrades are making sacrifices of their own – sometimes rather literally. There’s black magic here, as well as rather a lot of scheming. There’s riots and duels, dreams of better futures snuffed out by a darker present; there’s murders and abductions, and a feeling of rising tension, of matters coming to a head. It’s asking hard questions, turning to the reader for answers, and getting them to keep turning the pages to see which way things will go next.
This is an ambitious sequel, larger in scope than its predecessor – and it pulls it off magnificently. It’s intelligent, well drawn and a lot of fun to read – and so I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.