**Originally published on NerdgirlOfficial.com
A Desert Torn Asunder by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Released today, July 13th, 2021!
Bradley P. Beaulieu fell in love with fantasy from the moment he began reading The Hobbit in third grade. While Bradley earned a degree in computer science and engineering and worked in the information technology field for years, he could never quite shake his desire to explore other worlds. He began writing his first fantasy novel in college. It was a book he later trunked, but it was a start, a thing that proved how much he enjoyed the creation of stories. It made him want to write more. He went on to write The Lays of Anuskaya series as well as The Song of Shattered Sands series. He has published work in the Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies. He has won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award and earned a Gemmell Morningstar Award nomination. Learn more about Bradley by visiting his website, quillings.com, or on Twitter at @bbeaulieu.
Where are you from? Does the area you live in influence your writing?
I was born and raised in Wisconsin. Barring a five-year stint in Southern California, I’ve lived there my whole life. I really enjoy incorporating flora and fauna into my writing, and from that perspective Wisconsin (and, really, any place I visit) influences my writing.
I’ll give a special nod here, though, to Parkside Univerity in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For several years it hosted the GenCon Gaming Convention. I stumbled across it when I was…12? 13, maybe? I forget my exact age, but the university was bikeable from my house, and I took full advantage of it once I knew it existed. At the time, I’d just stumbled across D&D. Finding a whole community that love gaming (temporarily living, in essence, in alternate realities) was akin to the feeling I got when I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time. It felt like I’d stepped through a gateway into a world of infinite possibilities. It was wonderful, and fed my desire to become a gamemaser and (eventually) a writer.
Tell us your latest news??
Well, the big news is the release of A Desert Torn Asunder, the sixth and final installment of The Song of the Shattered Sands. I’m eagerly looking forward to the release and to see how readers react to the series finale.
I also have a new decopunk science-fiction mystery/thriller called Absynthe, a novel written under my sci-fi pseudonym, Brendan P. Bellecourt, coming out this December.
Absynthe tells the story of Liam, a WWI vet who discovers that government-sanctioned killers are after him because of a military experiment he took part in during the war. The only trouble? Liam doesn’t remember any of it. He’s suffered from amnesia since the end of the war. Coming across the killers, however, jogs a few of Liam’s memories loose. What follows is a race in which Liam must remember what happened and why he’s being targeted before a secret government cabal unleashes devastating plans on the country and the world.
When and why did you begin writing? What inspired you to write your first book?
I remember writing a few fantasy-ish stories in high school to satisfy the odd English literature class. Those stories were trite and terrible in equal measure, but they were a starting point for my writing. I eventually tackled my first novel late in my college career. At the time, I was studying to become a software engineer (a career I pursued over the following few decades). I tackled the novel more as a lark than anything. And indeed, I eventually abandoned it as derivative and lackluster, but it was another stepping stone in my journey.
Around the same time, I read Glen Cook’s The Black Company and its various sequels. I’ve always adored Tolkien’s elegant prose but, being honest, it felt unattainable to me. The idea of trying to write a book like that was simply too daunting. Cook’s “in the trenches” style of writing, on the other hand, felt more intimate, more attainable.
In the end, I incorporated both styles of writing, shifting between the two as the story dictated (observant readers will be able to sense both Cook’s and Tolkien’s influence in my style), but I’ll give Cook credit in inspiring me to actually dig in and seriously try writing.
What book(s) / author(s) have influenced your life and writing?
I mentioned Tolkien and Cook above, but I’ll give a big nod to C. S. Friedman here. Her Coldfire Trilogy was a revelation for me. It was a dark, intriguing, mesmerizing mix of fantastic and science-fictional elements. I adored that series and still do. I also love In Conquest Born, This Alien Shore, and The Madness Season.
Guy Gavriel Kay is another big influence on me. The Lions of Al-Rassan is one of my favorite books of all time. And The Sarantine Mosaic is a work of pure brilliance. Kay is a uniquely gifted writer with a lush, romantic style that I try (however imperfeclty) to incporporate into my own writing.
One last writer I’ll mention is Tim Powers. He has a gift of finding and exhaustively researching wrinkles in history he then mines for story material. The Anubis Gates is my favorite of his, but I also really enjoyed The Drawing of the Dark and Declare. (As a small aside, I was lucky enough to attend a writing workshop with Tim. Not only is he a brilliant writer, he’s a fine human being and an extremely insightful teacher.)
Tell us about your characters and how they came to be? Have they been in your head for a long time?
There are quite a few characters in The Song of the Shattered Sands. The primary one is Çeda, a pit fighter who vows revenge against the twelve cruel kings of Sharakhai over the death of her mother. Though revenge is the main driving force of the series early on, what follows is the unfolding of a grand mystery that allows Çeda to understand how the Sharakhani kings secured their power from the desert gods and what the gods might want in return.
The story is full of adventure and mystery. There are great battles between sandships in the desert. There are freedom fighters and neighboring kingdoms who have long coveted the city of Sharakhai. There are ancient creatures who complicate the lives of the main characters, and who have agendas of their own. What drives the story primarily, however, is Çeda’s drive to understand why her mother was killed and what it means not only for her, but for a lost desert tribe, the city of Sharakhai, and the people of the desert as a whole.
Beyond Çeda, there’s a large cast that includes assassins, kings, blood magi, ancient desert creatures, gods, and more. Being honest, none of them were really with me before I started the series in earnest. I will say, however, that they (as is true of all of my characters in all of my stories) felt like real people in a real, living, breathing world by the time the first novel was done.
I remember Harry Turtledove commenting at a convention panel years ago on depth of character and world. The comment was basically that he doesn’t want to write a story that feels like it doesn’t exist beyond the pages of the book. He wants one that goes far beyond them. That comment struck me on hearing it, and it’s one I’ve always tried to live by. I hope that by the time readers turn the last page of A Desert Torn Asunder, they feel like life in Sharakhai and the Great Shangai Desert will continue.
What motivates you to write?
Initially, it’s the thrill of creation. There’s something immensely satisfying about creating a world and story that intrigues readers. Reading (and writing, for that matter) is a form of hypnosis—readers willingly suspend reality to enter your world. Writers who lull you into that suspension of disbelief well are magicians. I love the notion of transporting readers to another place and time where things that are not possible in our world are possible. It’s a definite driving force for me.
Once I’ve started a story, however, once I’ve really dug in, it’s the characters themselves and their plight that motivate me. I become invested in their tale. They push me to write, if only to find out how they’re going to get out of the (admittedly rather harsh) situations I’ve put them in.
What is the hardest part of writing?
Whoo boy… There’s a lot to choose from.
Do I choose rejection? It’s a big one, certainly. From editors and agents declining to take on your work, to reviews that critique your work harshly, rejection is tough, really tough, not leastwise because the act of writing itself is so personal.
Or maybe it’s the need to publicize yourself that’s toughest. I was born and raised in the American Midwest. Putting myself out there, asking people to buy my books, crowing about my work, is just not part of my natural DNA. It’s a necessary part of the job, though, so I do it, but I definitely don’t enjoy it.
Or maybe I should pick the siren lure of anything except writing. Social networking can be a major time sink. As can, well, just regular life. Carving out the time to write and sticking to it is hard.
In the end, I think my answer is going to be “getting into the zone.” It’s very tricky, on a daily basis, to slip into the mindset needed to write well. Forgetting about the worries of your regular life is only half the battle. The other half is relating to the characters and their plight and slipping into their minds, into their world in the particular situation they’re in, and so on. It’s hard. Hard to attain that state of mind, hard to maintain it.
One of my favorite times is when words are flowing, when I’m lost in the story and I know precisely what’s happening and how to present it. I adore those moments, but they’re rare. Sometimes it feels like I’m hunting unicorns.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I think every book has its own sets of challenges. In the case of A Desert Torn Asunder, it was tricky finding a good balance between a satisfying resolution and making the story feel too easy or too pat. The trick was finding a way to dirty things up, to give resolutions that were satisfying but also surprising in some way. I think (hope) I managed it. I feel satisfied by it, certainly. I hope fans of the series do too.
Where do you get your ideas?
I think the best sources of inspiration are those that come from outside of your typical interests. It’s one of the reasons I like turning on NPR while I’m in the car. Why? Because their segments are always well researched and include experts that give deep insight into narrow topics. It’s inspired numerous story ideas, including fantastical ideas that have a modern, technological bent to them.
Another great source are TED Talks, and for much the same reason: the people speaking are deeply versed in the topic they’re talking about. Also, I like the (somewhat) random nature of choosing a talk and watching it. Even if I don’t find a story idea right off the bat, the talks delve deep and expose me to facets of a topic I would never have learned on my own (without years of investment, that is).
In short, step outside your bubble as often as possible, and I mean that not just from a technological perspective, but from social, religious, sexual, racial aspects and more as well.
What does your family think of your writing?
I think my family thought it was a cute endeavor at first. Like, aw, look, Brad’s doing the stuff he did in high school (being a dungeon master for D&D and the like). But as time went on, and they saw how dedicated I was, I think they became impressed. Proud, even. It’s a heartwarming feeling to have them “on board” for the journey.
What is the best advice you would give to inspiring authors?
I think one of the most important things is to enjoy the small successes. The path to becoming a writer is a long and often painful one. We begin with all sorts of hopes, dreams, and expectations. It’s simply part of the process that we don’t achieve all that we want as soon as we want or in the exact way we’d envisioned initially. Writing can be (and often is) a disheartening venture. There will be long stretches where it feels like you’re not making progress, or not making enough progress. But believe me, you are.
So, while you’re doing it, recognize your wins, however small. Feel the satisfaction that comes with them. Enjoy them, in other words. Got a few hundred words down? That’s awesome! Finished a chapter? You rock! Got a rejection that included a few encouraging words? Yes, yes, the rejection’s tough, but editors don’t mince words. Words of encouragement are absolutely a win, a mark of progress. So, keep going! Savor the journey itself. It will make the life of being a writer so much easier.
What book are you reading now?
Currently I’m reading (i.e. listening to via audiobook) City of Lies by Sam Hawke and All Systems Red by Martha Wells (aka Murderbot 1). I’m loving both.
Çeda gripped the Red Bride’s forestay to steady herself on deck. Her other hand rested on the pommel of River’s Daughter, a shamshir forged of ebon steel. The stiff wind tugged at her turban, made the skirt of her wheat-colored battle dress flap. The yacht’s lateen sails were full and rounded. The day was bright and beautiful, the wind pleasantly warm.
It reminded Çeda of a similar day, what felt like a lifetime ago. She’d been sailing with her mother, Ahya, toward a salt flat, a pilgrimage to witness the great flocks of Blazing Blues that congregated there in spring. Back then, the skis of their skiff had hissed over the sand, just as the Red Bride’s were now.
“It’s a good day to be alive,” Ahya had said in a rare moment of bliss.
Çeda had been confused at first, even wary—her mother simply didn’t share those sorts of emotions. Eventually, though, she’d relaxed and shared in her mother’s joy. She’d stood on the thwart and gripped the mast, reveling in the wind as it flowed through her unbound hair.
Her mother had actually laughed.
Çeda smiled wistfully at the memory but sobered as she cast her gaze over the amber dunes. Sailing the Great Shangazi had become dangerous, now more than ever. She and the others aboard her two ships had to remain wary of white sails, of dark hulls, along the horizon.
Sailing in the Red Bride’s wake was Storm’s Eye, a schooner that carried the bulk of warriors accompanying Çeda toward the mountains. All told they were a respectable force—eighty swords and shields in all, including the Shieldwives, the fierce desert swordswomen Çeda had trained herself. Even so, Çeda worried they wouldn’t be enough. The task she’d set for herself and the others was formidable. They sailed east to bring the traitorous Hamid, their childhood friend, to justice and regain control of the thirteenth tribe. The number of warriors at Hamid’s command would dwarf their own, but it couldn’t be helped. They had to try.
To the ship’s port side lay easy, rolling dunes with patches of perfectly flat sand. Along the starboard side were dunes the size of caravanserais. Known as the mounds, the dunes lounged like lizards, content in the knowledge that no ship could navigate their steep slopes. The formation was a strange phenomenon that occurred near summer’s end, a time when fitful sandstorms plagued the open sands. In a few more weeks, the winds would pass, the shift toward winter complete, and the dunes would slowly disappear.
The mounds represented a strange combination of danger and safety. Pirates or enemy ships sometimes lay in wait along their gutters, which was why Çeda had ordered three lookouts to watch them, but sailing on open sand had its dangers, too. Çeda and her allies had no shortage of enemies, after all. Sailing close to the mounds allowed her the option of sailing into them to lose their pursuers, be they desert tribespeople, Sharakhani, Mirean, or Malasani.
Hearing the scrape of footsteps, Çeda turned to see Emre climbing up from belowdecks. A smile tugged the corner of her mouth on seeing Emre work his way past Frail Lemi, who had strung a hammock between the foremast and a cleat on the cabin’s roof.
Emre gave him a shove as he sidled past. “Who let this bloody ox on our ship?”
His eyes still closed, his fingers laced behind his head, Lemi grinned his handsome grin as he rocked back and forth. “The gods gave me much, it’s true. No need to be jealous.”
“Why don’t you string your hammock at the top of the masts? At least then you’d be out of the way.”
“No!” Kameyl, a brawny ex-Blade Maiden Çeda had fought alongside countless times, called from the ship’s wheel. “He’d tip the damned ship over.”
Lemi’s grin only broadened.
Emre rolled his eyes, then gave Çeda a wink as he came to stand beside her. He wore sirwal trousers, sandals and a loose shirt that revealed the dark hair along the top of his chest. His broad, boiled leather belt and bracers were new, but they reminded Çeda of the ones he’d worn years ago when they had lived together in Roseridge.
Emre scanned the desert, his eyes a bit bleary. He’d just woken, having taken night watch. Çeda ran her fingers through his hair, feeling the scar from his surgery. To relieve the pressure from a terrible, lingering head wound delivered by Hamid’s lover, Darius, Dardzada had cut through Emre’s skin and used a carpenter’s drill to pierce his skull. She missed his long hair, but she had to admit the shorter hair, along with his pointed beard and mustache, gave him a roguish look she rather liked.
A sharp whistle cut through the hiss of the skis.
Çeda turned to see Shal’alara of the Three Blades, an elder of the thirteenth tribe, waving from the foredeck of the much larger Storm’s Eye sailing in their wake. She wore a battle dress similar to Çeda’s but, in her customary style, had dyed it a bright orange and embellished it with beaten coins, bracelets, and necklaces. The ruby brooch on her cream-colored head scarf glinted brightly in the sun.
“There’s an oasis to the north,” she bellowed across the distance.
There was no doubt everyone deserved a rest, but Sharakhai and the desert itself were still in deep danger. Making Hamid pay was only one of the reasons they needed to return to the valley below Mount Arasal. Çeda also needed access to the acacia tree, which granted prophetic visions. Çeda hoped to use them to learn how to close the unearthly gateway beneath Sharakhai.
“We sail on!” Çeda called back. “We have enough water to reach the next.”
Shal’alara nodded and began relaying the orders to Jenise, a fierce swordswoman and the leader of Çeda’s Shieldwives. Çeda was grateful to have them both. Shal’alara had rallied dozens to their cause, and Jenise had trained them, drilling them relentlessly with her Shieldwives. If Çeda succeeded in her quest, it would be thanks to their efforts as much as anyone else’s.
Sümeya, the former First Warden of the Blade Maidens, came up from belowdecks wearing her black battle dress, her Maiden’s black. With five clay mugs of water gripped tightly in her hands, which she proceeded to pass around, she looked more than a little like a west end barmaid.
Frail Lemi was just tipping the largest of the mugs back and swallowing noisily when Çeda felt something peculiar. It started as a tingling in the meat of her right thumb, where the adichara thorn had pricked her skin. It flowed through her fingers and up along her arm. It suffused her chest and for some peculiar reason made her keenly aware of the tattoos inked across her arms, chest and back. The sensation felt achingly familiar, though she couldn’t place it.
As they came abreast of a colossal sand dune, the feeling became so strong Çeda’s ribs and chest tickled from it. It was enough to jog a memory loose.
“Stop the ship,” she called immediately.
Kameyl followed Çeda’s gaze to the crest of the massive dune, but made no move to obey. “Why?”
“Just stop the ship!”
Kameyl shared a look with Sümeya, then shrugged. “As you say.”
They pulled in the sails and let the Bride glide to a halt. Behind them, Storm’s Eye did the same. All the while, Çeda faced the dune.
“What is it?” Emre asked in a soft voice.
Before Çeda could answer, an animal with cup-shaped ears, a long, pointed snout, and a ruff of red fur lifted its head over the top of the dune.
“Breath of the desert,” Çeda breathed.
It was a maned wolf, one of the long-legged creatures that roamed the desert in packs, often competing with black laughers for dominance over a territory.
Frail Lemi set his mug down, grabbed his greatspear, and stared at the wolf as if fearful that hundreds more would come storming down the dune. “What’s happening?”
But his words hardly registered. Another wolf was lifting its head along the dune’s crest. A third came immediately after, then a fourth. Soon more than twenty were staring down at the ships.
Çeda held her breath, waiting, hoping.
“Çeda?” Emre called.
She raised one hand, and he fell silent. Several long breaths passed. The wind kicked up, making spindrift lift in curls and whorls. The sun beat down, warming Çeda’s cheeks, her neck, the backs of her hands.
She took a deep breath. Released it slowly, praying.
She was ready to give up hope when another wolf, a female with a white coat, lifted her head.
For long moments, Çeda could only stare. She knew this wolf. Çeda herself had named her Mist. She’d been the inspiration for Çeda’s guise of the White Wolf in Sharakhai’s fighting pits. Gods, how powerful she looked now. How regal. On Çeda’s very first foray to the blooming fields with Emre, she had seen Mist as a pup. Years later she’d come to Çeda on the Night of Endless Swords, shortly after Çeda had killed King Mesut, and the two of them had traveled with the asir, Kerim, far into the desert. They’d stayed together for weeks until Çeda was discovered by scouts from Tribe Salmük.
It seemed a lifetime ago. So much had changed since then, both in Çeda’s life and Mist’s. Thorn, the largest and fiercest of the pack, was nowhere to be seen. Mist seemed to be their leader now. The rest waited as she padded forward. At first Çeda thought Mist was going to come down to meet the ship, but she didn’t. She halted less than halfway down, as if waiting for Çeda to come to her.
Çeda leapt over the gunwales, landing on the amber sand with a crunch. The sand sighed as she attacked the slope. Emre joined her, as did Sümeya.
“Play with a pack of mangy wolves all you wish,” Kameyl called from deck. “I’m staying here with the olives and the araq.”
A broad smile lit Frail Lemi’s face. “Olives and araq!” he roared, and fell back into his hammock. “I like the way you think!”
When Çeda reached Mist, she hugged the rangy wolf around the neck and scratched her fur. Her musky smell whisked Çeda back to their days hiding with Kerim in their desert cave.
Mist was a lithe beast, and taller than Çeda. While she wasn’t the biggest wolf in the pack, she had a confident air. The others were attentive, subservient, courtiers awaiting their queen’s next pronouncement. For a while, she seemed content to revel in Çeda’s scratches, then she nipped at Çeda’s wrist, something she used to do when she wanted Çeda to follow.
“Go on, then,” Çeda said with a smile, curious.
Mist yipped, then howled, as if trying to speak. Then she turned and padded up to the crest, and the pack parted for her, creating a lane. One growled, but fell silent when Mist barked loudly.
At the crest, Mist stopped and looked back, as if ensuring Çeda was following, then stared at something hidden behind the slope.
Çeda’s breath was on her by the time she reached Mist’s side. Below them, half buried at the base of the dune, was a sandship. Its skis had long been swallowed by the sand, and the hull was almost wholly submerged, a thing that happened to unattended ships in the deeper parts of the desert. The bow had been lost to the sloping edge of the dune’s windward side, but the stern and the quarterdeck were still visible.
“That’s a royal clipper,” Sümeya said.
Çeda suddenly recognized it. “It’s one of the ships that attacked us.”
Along the leeward side of the next dune, she saw signs of a second clipper, that one broken beyond repair, a victim of the goddess Nalamae’s power when she’d come to save Çeda and the others from the Kings.
Mist headed down the slope. Çeda, Emre, and Sümeya followed. The other wolves paced alongside them in two broad wings—an honor guard of sorts.
“Are you sure they’re not taking us somewhere to eat us?” Emre asked.
“Be quiet,” Çeda said, “or I’ll offer you up as a snack.”
Mist led them to the half-buried clipper and onto the main deck. From there she took the stairs down into the ship.
“What—?” Emre began. He stared at Çeda with a confused expression but soon fell silent.
They took the stairs down, where Mist led them to the cabin’s captain. The door was open, hanging from one hinge. Inside, a sifting of dust covered everything. Bottles and glasses and books had fallen from the shelves built into the hull. Broken glass lay everywhere, glinting. The shutters were closed, but light filtered in at an angle, segmenting the chaos into ordered ranks.
The feeling that had blossomed inside of Çeda on recognizing the clipper grew stronger by the moment. There were wolf prints on the dusty floor. Retracing them, Mist wove beyond the desk to a locked chest in the far corner of the cabin, the sort the captain would use for valuables, the ship’s treasury, and more. Mist sniffed at the lid, yipped and whined, then tugged at Çeda’s sleeve.
The air within the cabin felt suddenly oppressive. It was getting harder and harder to breathe.
Above the shutters, mounted to the hull, was a ceremonial spear. Çeda took it down and wedged it beneath the lid. With Emre and Sümeya helping, they pushed and pried, and eventually the lid gave way.
Çeda knelt before the chest. She balled her hands into fists. After taking one deep breath, she threw the lid back.
“By the gods…” Emre said. “How?”
Words failing her, Çeda could only stare in wonder. Her heart pounded as she reached in and took the object on top, a helm, the sort gladiators wore in the fighting pits. It had a wolf pelt along the top. The face guard, made of highly polished steel, was a mask molded into the likeness of a goddess: Nalamae. Beneath the helm was a set of boiled leather armor: a breastplate, a battle skirt, greaves, bracers, and gloves, all of which had been dyed white.
It was her old armor, the set she’d used when she’d fought in Osman’s pits for money.
Utterly confused, Çeda looked up to Sümeya, still holding the mask.
“The armor was meant for the sickletail,” Sümeya said. “Nayyan told me they’d needed something of yours in order for the bird to find you.”
“But how could they have found her armor?” Emre asked.
“Osman,” Çeda said. “They had him in their prison camp. He must have told Cahil where it was. Or Ihsan might have commanded him to give up its location.”
Çeda hardly knew what to feel. So much was rushing back to her. Her time in Roseridge with Emre. Her days learning the ways of pit fighting from her mentor, Djaga. Her many bouts in the pits. Her brief affair with Osman, owner of the pits. The journey she’d undertaken with Emre, which had led her to her uncle, Macide, and eventually to the King of the asirim, Sehid-Alaz—the start of her long and winding journey.
Mist panted beside her, her tongue hanging out. Her ivory eyes were alive, her gaze flicking from the armor to Çeda and back. She knew she’d done good. Çeda hugged her tight, ruffling the fur of her mane and the spot between her ears she liked so much to have scratched.
Mist leaned into it. Her tail wagged. For long moments she reveled in the attention, then suddenly broke away and faced the hull as if looking through the wood and sand to the Red Bride beyond. She hopped in the way she did when she wanted to run free.
A moment later an attenuated whistle reached them. Çeda and Sümeya knew what it was immediately. Emre, however, didn’t know how to decipher the Blade Maidens’ whistles.
“What?” he asked, staring at them.
“It’s Kameyl,” Çeda said as she gathered up the armor. “She’s spotted ships.”
They left the ship and took the slope up toward the crest of the massive dune. When they reached it, four ships could be seen sailing in from the north. Emre and Sümeya immediately began their slip-slide descent, but Çeda stayed behind. Shifting the armor’s bulk under one arm, she crouched and hugged Mist close.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Mist’s gaze flicked from Çeda to the distant ships. Several of the other wolves growled. One whined. Ignoring them, Mist butted her head against Çeda’s hand. After Çeda gave her one more scratch, she barked, then padded down the slope, away from the ships. Her pack followed in her wake.
Çeda watched them go until Kameyl whistled again, then she turned and rushed down the slope toward the Bride.