Next summer, Bradley P. Beaulieu and DAW Books deliver Beneath the Twisted Trees, the fourth volume of the Song of Shattered Sands, the immensely epic, immensely rewarding fantasy series that began with 2015’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. We’ve loved following this sand-swept Middle East-inspired saga—and the fate of its tenacious protagonist, pit-fighter turned rebel leader Çeda—and been in love with its world ever since we first glimpsed the shining city on the cover of the first book.
And speaking of covers, since then, we’ve also brought you your first of Çeda herself on the cover of book two, With Blood Upon the Sand, and today, we’re sharing the artwork that will adorn Beneath the Twisted Trees, created by Micah Epstein. Check it out below the official summary, and then keep reading for a quick q&A session with the author, who shares his thoughts on the challenges of crafting a mid-series cover, and shares a few of his favorite covers of all time.
The fourth book in The Song of Shattered Sands series—an epic fantasy with a desert setting, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action.
When a battle to eradicate the Thirteenth Tribe goes awry, the kingdoms bordering the desert metropolis of Sharakhai see the city as weak and ripe for conquest. Çeda, now leader of the Shieldwives, a band of skilled desert swordswomen, hopes to use the growing chaos to gain freedom for Sehid-Alaz, the ancient, undying king of her people. Freeing him is only the beginning, however. Like all the people of her tribe on that fateful night four centuries earlier, Sehid-Alaz was cursed, turned into an asir, a twisted, miserable creature beholden to the kings of Sharakhai—to truly free her king, Çeda must break the chains that bind him.
As Sharakhai’s enemies close in and the assault on the city begins, Çeda works feverishly to unlock the mysteries of the asirim’s curse. But danger lies everywhere. Enemy forces roam the city; the Blade Maidens close in on her; her own father, one of the kings of Sharakhai, wants Çeda to hang. Worst of all, the gods themselves have begun to take notice of Çeda’s pursuits.
When the combined might of Sharakhai and the desert gods corner the survivors of the Thirteenth Tribe in a mountain fastness, the very place that nearly saw their annihilation centuries ago, Çeda knows the time has come. She was once an elite warrior in service to the kings of Sharakhai. She has been an assassin in dark places. A weapon poised to strike from the shadows. A voice from the darkness, striving to free her people.
Now she’s going to lead.
The age of the Kings is coming to an end . . .
Our interview with Bradley P. Beaulieu follows…
You’ve officially crossed the halfway point of this six-book saga, and the cover seems to signal that, with a more intimate portrait of Çeda than we’ve seen before. What can you tell us about this image, and how it relates to where we are in the overall story arc?
It’s a great observation. I felt like it was time for a cover that showed more of Çeda’s personality. She began this journey with a lot of fire in her heart. She was only a girl when she vowed to avenge her mother’s death at the hands of the kings of Sharakhai. Later, when her path crossed that of a king time had forgotten, it reawakened that quest in her, but she’d vastly underestimated how difficult it was going to be. As driven as she was, as capable as she was in some ways, she was too inexperienced, and armed with too little information, to follow through on her vow.
Things have changed a lot since then. Over the course of the first three books, we see Çeda grow into someone more up to the task of taking on the Kings. She’s gained in her abilities. She’s gained in her knowledge of the thirteenth tribe and made powerful allies. As the fourth book opens, Çeda knows that time is fleeting and that Sharakhai’s fate will soon be decided. And now she’s ready to act.
That sense of readiness is what I hoped to capture in the cover, and I think Micah did a wonderful job of it. The Çeda we see here is confident and capable, a woman not just willing to do what it takes to protect those who’ve suffered so greatly under the rule of the kings, but able. At last, she’s ready to step out from the shadows and lead.
With prior books, you’ve been very involved in the process of cover creation. Was that the case this time? Were there any other directions considered before this one was chosen?
This cover was a little different in that we didn’t really consider too many other options. From the start, my editor and publisher, Betsy Wollheim, her art director, Adam Auerbach, and I were pretty laser focused on zooming in on Çeda. And, given the title of the book, we wanted the adichara trees to be involved as well. The trees play such a central role in the story. They tie closely to the asirim, the miserable creatures who live among the roots beneath them. They are a link to Sharakhai’s past. So we all felt confident in a cover that accentuated these two things (Çeda and the trees) in a dynamic, impactful way.
I provided various references for the trees and Çeda’s garb. Some were from the text itself. Others were from the Pinterest board I keep for the Shattered Sands series. We went through a color sketch stage and then a final rendering, and I provided a few thoughts on each. I’ll be honest, though. It was clear from the start that this was going to be a powerful cover, so my input in these last few stages was minimal.
As someone who has designed and commissioned art for your own self-published books, I’m curious: is it more important for you to have a cover that seems true to the book, or one that is more marketable (i.e. in line with current trends)?
Years ago, when I was just breaking into the field, I would have said I want a cover that seems true to the book. I wanted a scene rendered that could encapsulate the grandeur of it all, the same way that the covers of my youth did. My thoughts on the subject have evolved, though. I’m published all over the world. I do this writing thing for a living. My livelihood depends on sales. And so I’ve come to see book covers for what they really are: marketing devices.
This isn’t to say I don’t want a cover that’s true the story. I do. And I have my own personal views on what might make for a good cover. But in the end I recognize my voice is just one among many. It would be shortsighted of me, even foolish, to want my tastes placed above all others. There are, after all, a hundred ways to approach cover design. A thousand. And the thing of it is, I trust my publishers, art directors, and the artists themselves to be more up on trends than I am.
It’s easy for authors to think of covers as permanent, which is partly why we get so particular about them. And I suppose in a way they are permanent, but they’re also a snapshot in time. The artistic tastes of the readership is a constantly changing thing. There’s a sense of one-upmanship and finding the next big trend in art and cover design. And so we have to look at covers as being designed not so much for the book itself, but as a way to attract the maximum amount of attention in this Darwinian evolution of artistic tastes and messaging.
That’s a pretty long-winded way of saying that these days I’m more concerned about the marketing. The cover’s primary job begins and ends with enticing the reader to pick up the book (virtually or otherwise). It’s then the story’s job to keep them there.
Can you think of a recent book with a cover that really stood out to you, or one you picked up just for the cover?
I love maps, and so Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, with the stylistic map of London incorporated into the design, was instantly attractive to me. I like all of the the Peter Grant series covers rendered in that style.
I also love series that set a specific tone and style up front and stick with it throughout. A great example is John Gwynne’s The Faithful and the Fallen series. Each book has a different weapon on the cover but the series as a whole has a consistent, epic feel to it.
The covers of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series are wonderful. The abstract characters and subtle use of maps in various basic shapes make for really eye-catching designs.
Lastly, I’ll call out Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. There’s something really subtle and effective going on with all of them. Relatively simple backgrounds are used throughout, but the typography, layout, and subtle use of light combine to really make them pop.
What are some of your personal favorite fantasy covers of all time?
I have to call out Michael Whelan in general, who created so many iconic covers, from C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy, to Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, to Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series. And on and on. He had a huge influence on the books I bought during high school and beyond.
I’ll also call out Walter Velez’s art for Thieves’ World, a thing that had me flipping to the cover constantly to imagine various scenes set in and around the Vulgar Unicorn.
And Tolkien’s own cover art that graced the 1970s Ballantine editions of The Lord of the Rings, the covers I first found in my grade school library, hold a special place in my heart. I didn’t know at the time that Tolkien himself had made them, but I find that they have just the right amount of whimsy, mysticism, and adventure packed into them.
Preorder Beneath the Twisted Trees, available July 16, 2019. The first three books of the Song of Shattered Sands are available now.
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