The days of alternate Medieval Europe as the one and only setting for the fantasy genre are well and truly over. The last decade has brought us increasingly diverse fantasy stories told by equally diverse people whose voices feel so fresh and new because they were left unheard for so long. Tasha Suri is only one among those voices but she demands to be heard. Her debut novel Empire of Sand was so good, you guys!
EMPIRE OF SAND
by Tasha Suri
Published: Orbit, 2018
eBook: 402 pages
Series: The Books of Ambha #1
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: Mehr woke to a soft voice calling her name.
A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood. An empire built on the dreams of enslaved gods. Empire of Sand is Tasha Suri’s captivating, Mughal India-inspired debut fantasy.
The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.
When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda — and should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…
Empire of Sand is a lush, dazzling fantasy novel perfect for readers of City of Brass and The Wrath & the Dawn.
There’s a reason Tasha Suri was nominated for an Astounding Award for Best New Writer and everybody seems to love her. It’s because she’s a damn good writer who effortlessly created a Mughal India-inspired fantasy world that feels fresh but still familiar enough for fans of fantasy tropes to enjoy.
Mehr lives a privileged but difficult life. Her father is a wealthy nobleman but her mother – now exiled – belonged to the Amrithi, a nomad people that is outcast from the rest of society. They are seen as a sort of witches who are, at the same time, looked down upon and feared. For when the daiva come, it is the Amrithi whose blood can keep them at bay.
I fell completely and utterly in love with the world of this novel during the first few chapters. Through Mehr’s eyes, we are introduced not only to the Empire itself but also to some of its societal intricacies. Mehr is called to her little sister Arwa’s room because a daiva (a spirit) is scaring her. With confidence and grace, Mehr handles the situation and shows us not only how competent she is but also how deep her love for her little sister runs and how difficult her life is. Because the girls’ stepmother doesn’t want Arwa to grow up learning about her mother’s culture and beliefs. While it’s too late to keep Mehr from following “heathen” rituals, the younger sister can still be “saved”.
The plot kicks off when Mehr is married off to a man for the usual reasons. Political power, being rid off the half-Amrithi girl, you know the deal. But when Mehr is picked up by the Empire’s mystics and meets her future husband Amun, she soon learns that there is way more to her impening union than meets the eye. Her Amrithi heritage is not only knowing and performing certain rites, or even having special blood that can keep dangerous daiva at bay. And if Mehr doesn’t want to be used by power-hungry people, she and Amun will have to come up with something fast!
Although I wouldn’t consider certain aspects of this book as a spoiler, I am keeping things very vague for those of you who like to be completely surprised. Because let me tell you, this book has a few good surprises up its sleeve.
I loved most things about this story, so I’ll start with the one I found the weakest: the plot. It starts out well enough, promising an exploration of a rich world with several cultures juxtaposed, societal norms, and a killer premise (force marriage and leaving a beloved sister behind!). Then comes a plot twist and after than, unfortunately, follows a bit of a dragging middle part. At the end, the plot picked up again but it was fairly predictable what would happen. So I was most intrigued at the very beginning. The kind of intrigued where you think about the book constantly when you can’t read it. After the main story was all set up, however, I lost a bit of interest. I still enjoyed reading the book when I picked it up but that urge to go read immediately when I get the chance was gone. Buuuut that was only one aspect of this book and literally everything else about it was phenomenal.
Possibly my favorite thing was the world buildling. Granted, I’m a sucker for non-European settings in fantasy, so I’m easy to please. But, Tasha Suri does more than just set her story in South Asia and give her characters Indian-inspired names. She built an entire world that feels real and lived-in, like it has centures of history that we don’t get to read about but whose influence and impact we feel on the page. I especially loved how easy it was to learn about the differences between Mehr’s Amrithi culture and the predominant cultures and/or beliefs in the Empire. Although they’re not described in great detail, it’s clear that different areas of the Empire aren’t all the same. Just like any kingdom/empire/country large enough, its people aren’t one big homogenous mass but each area has its own little rites, fashions, and behaviours.
I was super impressed how well the world came to life in this debut novel!
Adding to that, Tasha Suri also writes fantastic characters. I was immediately rooting for Mehr, not only because of her bond to her little sister and her strong wish to keep her mother’s heritage alive inside herself, but also because she is mentally strong, hopeful despite the odds, and loyal to a fault. The man she’s supposed to marry, Amun, may come across as gruff at first but at least I found it obvious from the start that there is more to him than you may think at first. His character was a lot of fun to read because his personality slowly unfolded over the course of the story. I really liked him and getting to know him better and better was a joy.
But even side characters, ones that appear only fleeingly and ones that recur, feel like proper human beings with their own hopes and wishes and that’s something that many debut authors struggle with. Many manage to write a compelling protagonist but forget that the other characters are supposed to be three-dimensional, too. Not so Tasha Suri. Even the somewhat tropey “evil stepmother” character didn’t come across like a cliché but rather like someone who means well and is doing her best, in her own (maybe narrow-minded) world. Even though she doesn’t get a lot of time on the page, having this kind of side character makes the entire book so much more compelling.
And after all that praise I haven’t even mentioned the magic yet. I won’t say much about it because discovering how it works is part of the plot and even more part of Mehr’s character growth. But to give you an idea of what to expect: This is not a neat Sanderson-style magic system where every move has exactly one outcome and things feel almost mathematical. It’s the kind of wild magic that refuses to be controlled, that doesn’t always make logical sense (because duh, it’s magic!) but that feels all the more exciting for it. I particularly liked that this magic is performed not through spells or brewing something up, but rather through movement of body. Tasha Suri described her magic well enough to convey it as dance-like but left enough room for the imagination. I sometimes saw the rites as a dance, sometimes as a sort of yoga flow, but it’s definitely something I haven’t seen done before and that’s always a plus.
I picked this book up because I was excited for Tasha Suri’s upcoming The Jasmine Throne and didn’t want to wait until June to sample her writing. Plus, when she was nominated for an Astounding Award, I didn’t get to this book and have felt a bit guilty ever since. Now at least I know that her nomination was more than deserved and I may just read Realm of Ash, the companion novel, before diving into her newest work.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!