Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
Tasha Suri is another author I follow on Twitter. I can’t remember where I heard about her, but when I read about this book, I was absolutely stoked for it to come out. I can’t be the only one who’s kind of bored with the more traditional Eurocentric fantasy tropes, right?
Also, her threads about Mughal history (from which Empire is inspired) are fantastic.
Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of the governor of Irinah, a providence of the Ambhan Empire, which is ruled by the laws of the Emperor and the faith of Maha, the immortal first emperor. Living in the lap of luxury in the women’s quarters of her father’s palace, Mehr’s life is an unremarkable one, except she practices the rites of her absent mother’s people, an art frowned upon by the empire.
As an unusual storm rolls in to Jah Irinah, rumors spread that the Emperor is searching for Mehr’s people, in order to banish them into the desert. The oncoming front does more than simply shake up the weather, and Mehr finds herself losing allies, her home and her safety. Thrust into scandal, religious and political intrigue and a strange courtship, Mehr must scramble to keep herself and her loved ones safe, and unravel the mystery of the Saltborn, mystics living in the desert, and their master, the immortal Maha.
Great World Building
The world building in this novel is fantastic. The story is set in a world I’m guessing most western
readers won’t be very familiar with, but Suri does a wonderful job fleshing it out, from descriptions of the architecture to the food, to cultural practices and norms. The cultures of the Ambhan and the Amrithi, the two peoples Mehr’s blood flows from, are so different, but we aren’t weighed down or bored by history and explanations. Suri brings these cultures to life before our eyes, sometimes with dire consequences for her protagonist. What we end up with is a rich tapestry for a backdrop to a story of heartbreak, endurance and wonder.
Mehr is absolutely awesome. At first, she is naive, having spent her entire life behind the protective walls of her father’s house, but once she’s out in the world, she has to learn quickly how to survive and who to trust. Her relationship with Amun, a mysterious captive of the Saltborn and the Maha, only helps her grow. While she does change over the course of the story and some of her childish thinking matures, her caring heart and strong will remain. The hardships she goes through are just incredible and make for a book you’re probably not going to want to put down. I know I didn’t once I got through the first few chapters.
Having read the sample of the next book, I’m deeply interested to see if she shows up again in the future, and what she’ll be like if she does.
A Unique Magic System
The magic system Suri has created for Empire is so fun and interesting. The idea is, that those with certain blood are descended from the children of the gods, the daiva. Possessors of this blood have the ability to perform rites, which call upon the dreams of the gods, who are asleep. When the dreams are shaped, miracles, such as turning sand into soil occur. These rites take the form of traditional dances, handed down by the clans of the Amrithi. It’s really fun to watch Mehr go from simply carrying on the traditions of her mother’s people to using them as a way to change the world around her, and to attempt to understand it for herself.
This was a really fun read. The first chapters were slow and a little tough to get through, but once the prospect of a mysterious marriage to a stranger came up, I was hooked, though I don’t normally go in for that sort of thing. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes strong female protagonists, or wants a setting that’s a little more refreshing than your usual psudo-European high fantasy. The characters are great, the setting is fantastic and the story will have you rooting for Mehr (and wondering if she’s going to survive) practically the whole way through. Definitely check it out. Also, holy crap, follow her on Twitter.
Bechdel Test: Pass