To celebrate A Desert Torn Asunder publishing, here’s a little note from author Bradley Beaulieu:
(Note from the author: mild spoilers for Twelve Kings in Sharakhai lie ahead.)
I often get asked if I can recall the earliest ideas, the sparks that eventually became Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and The Song of the Shattered Sands series. The answer is a resounding yes. I recall several of those early glimpses quite vividly.
The first was of a ghoulish creature (think Eddie of Iron Maiden fame) stealing along the dusty streets of a city in the desert. I didn’t have a name for that creature at the time, but that miserable, cursed soul and others like it would eventually become the asirim. In the vision, I saw their boneyard shamble. I saw their shriveled skin. I felt their hunger. Saw them kill and drag their victims into the desert, where they were thrown to thorny trees that drank of their blood.
It was an interesting (not to mention grisly) start, but it was only one element, and not a very deep one at that. I didn’t know why the asirim were doing these things, nor did I know their history and how it related to the city of Sharakhai and its people.
The next image was of the main character, Çeda, who was orphaned when her mother was tortured and hung before the palace gates. I saw Çeda growing up in a city that was harsh on the unwary, doubly so on the foolish. I saw her rising up to challenge the very kings who ruled the desert.
Again, it was a decent start, but Çeda’s character was very vague. I didn’t even know why she was fighting the kings beyond a simple desire for revenge—well, that and the fact that the kings had ruled unjustly for centuries.
It’s probably obvious by now that the third leg of this formative triangle was the kings themselves. (As a small aside, I didn’t know there would be twelve kings in the beginning. I played around with a bunch of numbers and ended up on twelve because, well, it felt like a good number, a real challenge for Çeda to go up against.) In any case, I knew the kings were both undying and exceedingly powerful. I decided I wanted each to have their own unique set of powers, but I didn’t know how they secured their powers, nor the challenges they faced in the centuries that followed.
Though it wasn’t a terribly conscious plan on my part, these three elements—the asirim, Çeda, and the kings—became the central pillars of the series. It became a riddle of sorts to determine how they were related, what it would mean to Çeda, specifically, and how that might launch her on her long and winding journey.
Because the world I was building was complex, I knew the solution wouldn’t come easily, but luckily I had a trick up my sleeve. When I teach writing, I often talk about connective tissue. Connective tissue is the notion that various story elements (particularly the primary story elements) should be related in some way, and that, if various elements feel unrelated, one can search for ways to connect them in order to deepen the characters, the world, and the plot. Said another way, one can’t help but deepen one’s understanding of the story as a whole when developing links between story elements, which in turn helps to generate new story ideas. It’s a positive feedback loop.
I started toying with those protean story elements, playing them against one another to see what sort of new ideas might come to mind. I knew there needed to be strong connections between the three main elements (Çeda, the kings, and the asirim), so I decided to start with my primary character, Çeda, and her background. I knew her mother, Ahya, was killed by the twelve kings, but I didn’t know why. I decided Ahya had journeyed to Sharakhai many years ago with a very specific mission—to learn how to destroy the kings—and that, in order to do so, she had to learn their secrets.
This naturally implied that there were secrets to be learned, which forced me to shift focus to the kings themselves. I’d already decided they’d made a bargain with the desert gods four centuries earlier to secure their power. Given that Ahya was out to learn their deepest, darkest secrets, I thought: what if the kings had actively worked to bury knowledge of that night? What if they’d waged a successful, centuries-long campaign to prevent people from learning the truth? This implied that those secrets, the ones Ahya wanted so badly, were the very keys to their power, and could therefore spell their doom.
It was a brilliant realization. Instead of the kings being all powerful, they were mere mortals who gained their power only by leave of the desert gods. The war with the twelve desert tribes that was threatening to destroy their city pushed the kings to beg the desert gods for salvation. What about their secrets, though? Why would they want them hidden so badly? I mean, if they really are so powerful, why would they care if people knew? Well, I decided the gods not only gave them each unique powers, but unique weaknesses as well. Clearly, those weaknesses were something the kings would go to great lengths to keep hidden.
Like this, a solid connection between Çeda’s thread (via her mother) and the kings was made. I wasn’t done, though. There was still the asirim and their relationship to the other two main pillars.
It quickly became clear that the asirim needed to be caught up in the same dark pact. When the kings begged the desert gods for help in defeating the host preparing to raze the city, they needed more than individual powers—they needed an army that could stop the invaders and send them fleeing into the desert. This was the purpose of the asirim. Once a tribe unto themselves, the gods turned them into violent, undying creatures, thereby granting the kings power unlike anything the desert has ever seen.
Though it was desperation that drove the kings to make this bargain, sacrificing a whole people was deeply immoral, and therefore shameful. With that realization, I had the second reason the kings wanted that night to be kept secret. If people knew the real history, they would see the kings for what they truly are: sinful despots who deserve death, not rule over the desert.
I now had two strong connections: one between Çeda and the kings and another between the kings and the asirim. All that was missing was the last leg, the one between Çeda and the asirim.
Again, I knew Çeda’s mother went to Sharakhai to destroy the kings, but why? Why was it such a burning desire for her? With the previous connections already made, the solution was elegantly simple: the asirim were Çeda’s people. Ahya and Çeda were descendants of the tribe that was sacrificed four hundred years earlier. That was why Ahya wanted to see the kings fall: not just because they ruled with iron fists, or because they deserved death after their terrible betrayal. Ahya and, later, Çeda wanted revenge for their ancestors, the very people who were cursed when the kings made their dark pact with the desert gods.
With that connective tissue tying the three main pillars together, the story felt so much richer than before. No longer did I have a few disparate ideas, but a complex weave that would become the basis for the entire, six-book epic. I finally saw a way forward. Çeda’s search for vengeance over the death of her mother would morph into a quest to free the asirim and lift their centuries-old curse. That in turn would lead to Çeda butting up against the very plan the gods set into motion when they agreed to save Sharakhai and grant the kings their power.
Only one burning question remained: If the kings had secured such a staggering amount of power from the desert gods, what was in it for the gods themselves? The answer to that question became the driver for many of the later books, and gave me something to move toward as the series progressed.
So why did the gods do it? Well, the answer is… complex, and I think I’ll leave it in the pages of the books for you to discover on your own. I hope you do, and that you find it as exciting, engrossing, and emotional as it was for me to write.
Bradley Beaulieu’s latest book and the final instalment in the Song of the Shattered Sands series, A Desert Torn Asunder, is out now.