by Kristen B.
Empire of Sand opens with a young woman painting a window sill with her blood, looking to ward against the daiva spirits of the wild sands. In some ways, the rest of Tasha Suri’s duology revolves around these older spirits that have been subjugated by the Ambhan Empire – and by those who consider them monsters and those who count them as family. Suri’s books are set in a lush, vibrant world based on the Mughal Empire – complete with vast deserts and verdant oases. Here, the Emperor governs but the Maha rules. Here, the upper class consists solely of Ambhan people and the Amrithi are outcast because of their magic.
Mehr is the privileged child of the regional governor, acknowledged but nonetheless the daughter of an Amrithi courtesan. She possesses the full inheritance of her mother’s people, but is protected by her father’s influence. Mehr lives in an uneasy truce with her step-mother, who has adopted Mehr’s younger sister as her own daughter to be raised as an Ambhan noblewoman. Mehr has no ambition for a noble marriage, but when she is discovered practicing Amrithi magic, she is given little choice.
The Maha rules the Empire through the prayers of his mystics. When Mehr accidentally divulges her abilities, she is forcibly married to the powerful mystic Amun and taken away to live a sequestered life in a distant oasis. At the Maha’s Temple, Mehr learns that she and her husband are expected to perform the Rite of the Bound. This magical rite, a choreographed dance with particular poses and gestures, allows the magic of the desert daiva and older gods to flow through the Maha and into the Empire, extending its territory and influence. Through their practice and discipline, Mehr and Amun learn about each other and the tragedies that brought each to the Maha’s temple.
It is this romance of desperation and rebellion that powers the second half of the book. I read this novel in large gulps, needing to know what happened next. As much as I enjoyed the world building, I truly came to love both Mehr and Amun, rooting for them to find a way to be together and free of the Empire. The underlying themes of colonization and prejudice give Empire of Sand an unexpected sense of gravity. There is no doubt but that individual lives were used and abused for the supposed greater good. The consequences of generations of such cruelty cannot easily be constrained or controlled.
The second book, Realm of Ash, deals with the unfolding repercussions from Mehr and Amun’s story, but from another perspective entirely. We encounter Mehr’s younger sister, Arwa, again as she makes her way to a distant convent for widowed noblewomen. Arwa was, indeed, raised as an Ambhan noblewoman and married a military officer with a bright future. When the garrison is massacred by daiva, Arwa is one of the few survivors and chooses to absent herself from high society. Not entirely surprisingly, the convent is a hotbed of Imperial politics and Arwa soon finds herself on the way to the capital city to serve in the retinue of a princess.
Where her sister has the magic of the Amrithi rites, Arwa discovers that she has a different ability that allows her to access the memories in her blood, remembrances of her ancestors, in the Realm of Ash. The princess’ illegitimate brother lives in nocturnal solitude, researching and experimenting for a way to restore the Ambhan Empire to its former safety and prestige. Arwa must learn to embrace her Amrithi heritage to help the prince and to accept her own worth. Again, a forbidden romance (Ambhan noblewomen may not remarry) lies at the heart of a rebellion against a court built on deception and corruption. And again, I found myself rooting for these two against all odds.
In some ways I preferred Realm of Ash because it shows more of the interconnected elements of the Ambhan Empire, the military and the regular people of Jah Ambha (the capital city), servants and spies. As Arwa and her prince flee into the desert and join a pilgrimage, the wide variety of life outside of palaces and temples make for a wonderful sense of place and history. The bigger picture at play in the second book is, perhaps, only made possible by the laser focus of the first novel.
The fantasy genre is chock-full of strong heroines, women who can outfight anyone and snark about it after … the term kick-ass is usually employed. Mehr and Arwa gave me a much more grounded reality, finding their courage in the face of terrifying odds. Neither young woman wants to be an agent of change or is a rebel at heart. Both have learned to keep their heads down and mouths shut so as not to attract attention or draw criticism. They do have, however, an unerring sense of fairness and a desire to be allowed to live their own lives, loving whom they choose. These sisters indelibly alter their entire world by being brave enough to take the chances presented to them, sometimes fearlessly and sometimes with only a hope and a prayer.
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.