The following is less a review and more a response to Bradley Beaulieu’s 2015 Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.
I recall encountering the term ‘churnalism’ in John Clute’s review of Paolo Bacigalupi’s novella “The Alchemist”on Strange Horizons. I’ve not investigated the term further, but Clute’s typically abstract phrasing left me with an impression of its meaning: product pumped out of a manufacturing facility to keep the conveyor belt of mainstream fiction turning. Within two chapters of Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai my mind immediately snapped to ‘churnalism.’
The novels opens with a bloody gladiator fight between a warrior woman and hulking male fighter (aka “feminism” in modern genre), and within a few paragraphs transitions to a graphic sex scene featuring said warrioress (including the words “spilled seed,” “manhood,” “gasp,” and other such refined expressions). Pure advertizing, such an opening ‘hook’ screams: “If you want more of this, keep reading!!” Obviously trying to capture a piece of the success of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones tv series and its similar dependence on unending sex and violence, Beaulieu’s novel, at least what I read beyond this point, is rife with sensationalism but little if nothing of deeper substance.
The desperation of wanting to be a commercial success so obvious, in fact, it distracts from the novel. One can almost see Beaulieu consulting the Martin formula to success. “And now we need to include some tactile details of food, something strongly sensory like cinnamon or honey… Haven’t had a fight in a while; best to contrive an excuse—maybe bandits from the woodwork… Oops, forgot to include the eye color of that side character, that’s important, best amend it…” When the reader can actually see the writer going through the motions, it makes for a slog.
Imitation story in perfunctory prose, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is more a product of the times than a work of literature unto itself, and for me, represents all that’s wrong with the publishing factory—I mean, industry—these days. For those paying attention, you heard it here first: the novel will one day be bunched together with the whole wad of similar material as e-pulp.
If you only read epic fantasy, then perhaps there is something here for you. Otherwise, “Churn, churn the genre churn...”