Song of the Shattered Sands #5
DAW; July 14, 2020 (US)
Gollancz; July 16, 2020 (UK)
528 pages (ebook)
4.2 / 5 ✪
I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to DAW, Gollancz, Bradley Beaulieu and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.
The penultimate entry in the Song of the Shattered Sands takes a while, but manages to impress just as much as its predecessors. The same great world-building, character development, attention to detail and structure are just some of the reasons I’ve made it so far into this series, and many of the reasons I’m looking forward to its conclusion with the usual amount of hope, anticipation and anxiety. As much as I love a good ending—I’ll be sad to bid these characters farewell. But every story needs an end. Let’s just not rush to it too quickly, eh?
The rule of the Kings has been broken. The Blood Queen Meryam nows rules Sharakai, along with the descendants of the Kings. The remnants of the initial Twelve have been scattered to the winds. Ihsan—maimed and scarred—now wanders the Shangazi alone, searching for clues to the gods’ plans for the desert. As his hopes of solo rule have faded so too have his chances of survival. But there is still a slim hope: for Ihsan, and for the world itself.
Brama and Davud have staved off death, at least thus far. All but alone and abandoned, they must each rely on their single ally. But where Davud’s is the beautiful, formerly blood mage Esmerae—with whom he has fallen in love—Brama’s is the dangerous ehrekh, Rümayesh, with who he now shares a body. With no help coming, and nothing but doom before them, both will find themselves attracted to the same mystery. One that may determine the fate of the desert.
With the help of Sehid-Alaz—the thirteenth king—Çeda has broken the asirim’s curse. But it comes at a great cost, as both the goddesses Nalamae and Yerinde lie dead, slain at each other’s hand. But where Yerinde lies still, Nalamae is fated to be reborn, though where and when Çeda does not know. And so she turns her attention to Sharakai, hoping to find some clue to the goddesses whereabouts in the city.
But others are searching for the desert goddess as well. And when Çeda discovers the reason, it will force her to make a difficult choice: work with the former Kings, or risk Sharakai’s ultimate destruction. A desperate plan is hatched, one that may yet save the city. For while the city stands, the Shangazi rests easy, but if the sands consume it, then they may consume the world as well.
All in all, I enjoyed my time reading When Jackals Storm the walls. As always, Beaulieu’s world-building is strong; possibly his greatest strength. The characters aren’t far behind—each continuing their development to a satisfying degree by book’s end. Brama and Davud especially stole the show, though Meryam impressed as well. There are always exceptions to this rule, with two of note: Çeda and Ramahd. Çeda’s development was there, but felt a little diminished as she’s really the face of this franchise. While her love life seems to have recovered (more, at least) from where it’s been in recent books, her transition from warrior to leader seems to have hit a snag. Not that she regressed, more that it was stagnant. Ramahd, for his part, was stagnant. The little we see of him in WJStW, she’s chasing Meryam, still trying to bring her to justice. Late, late in the book, he shows some of the development we’ve seen in past books, but for the most part he’s a mindless, faceless drone
I’m always skeptical of the choice to add a new character so late in the series. While Meryam is by no means “new”—she’s been around as a significant character since the first book—she hasn’t had her own POV chapters until now. And when one gives a character their own POV, the author typically wants to delve into their character’s backstory. This can cause the pace to slow or become uneven, especially in the later books where most other characters have been fleshed out. Meryam is no different. But Beaulieu has attempted to mitigate this by putting only brief flashbacks in each POV chapter, disguised as a dream sequence. They don’t take up as much time, and don’t screw with the pacing as much either. Willem and Hamid show up not nearly as often as the Queen, and mostly just to flesh out the story. Neither feature a heavy backstory, nor much in the way of personality. While they’re mildly interesting, it doesn’t seem like either is around to stay. Or are they?
That said, the pacing of When Jackals Storm the Walls is already slow. Honestly, I found it slower to build than most of the predecessors—since roughly Book #2. This slow build clashes dramatically with the sense of urgency exhibited by most characters throughout the book, and makes for the oddest feeling. It’s like the army adage “hurry up and wait”. It’s legitimately strange to see the characters of a book talking with urgency, but then strolling around like they have all the time in the world.
Through most of the story, I was interested, if not overly so. While a bit slow, there is a good mystery to the book—involving Sharakai, the gods, Nalamae, the Kings, the desert itself. When the mystery begins to unfold, it sells vast on a vast scale; one where the gods move humanity and demons alike around like pieces on a chessboard. The moment where I put everything together I wondered if Beaulieu had this in mind all along—because it is brilliant. But it takes some patience to make it this far. Around the 55% mark, the pace began to catch up to the urgency, and the tale began to drink me in. The conclusion, which begins to build after around the 70% mark or so, was truly an epic one—one of the most epic and jaw-dropping conclusions I’ve ever witnessed. It wasn’t so much that I was blindsided, or didn’t see it coming, it was just the execution was spot-on; the description so vivid and detailed that I felt like I’d fallen into the book and was witnessing it happen myself.
Addition of new characters, new faces, and new POV chapters hurts the pacing, but ultimately helps tell the story. With everything happening, When Jackals Storm the Walls lays down a level of urgency that the text just doesn’t live up to, at least for a while. But throughout a mystery is unfolding, one written on the level of the gods themselves. It’s truly impressive once you figure it out, especially if one manages it before the story hands it to you. When the pacing finally does catch up with the urgency, it sets off a conclusion that is epic even in the most epic standards. So detailed is the writing, so vivid the description that I felt like I’d fallen into the book—and was witnessing events firsthand. The fifth book of the Shattered Sands sets up what’s certain to be an even more epic conclusion, if such a thing is possible. After the ending sequence of this one, I cannot wait for the next one!