I received an uncorrected proof copy in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Tasha Suri and Orbit Books.
In Empire of Sand, the original and excellent South Asian influenced fantasy debut of Tasha Suri's we follow the action of Mehr who is an illegitimate but highborn daughter of a governor of the Ambham Empire. It begins when a Daiva which is sort of a winged and taloned spirit invades the castle and infiltrates Mehr's younger sister's room, who is terrified as a young child would be. Mehr has dealt with these beings before and knows that an offer of blood will guarantee them peace well, at least for a limited amount of time. Mehr's mother's clan were outcasts who worshipped the spirits of the sands and some have a form of magic beneath their skin. As the cover says: 'Magic is in her blood.' The Daiva, ancient Daiva and worse creatures known as nightmares are currently behind the veil of reality but when the frequent storms arrive the otherworldly beings come with it. Unfortunately for Mehr, who can perform magical dances and rites during the tempest, the Emperor's feared mystics are searching for anyone who can wield magic for reasons unbeknown to most but these shamans are normally taken away never to be seen again.
We mainly follow Mehr's third person point of view perspective although there are three other interludes that are presented from another two views that bridge small gaps within the progression of the narrative. When I first picked up this book I believed it was going to be of a YA nature as it is likened to Trudi Canavan and Sarah J. Mass on the back. It has aspects that fans of these authors stories will like however I personally believe it has more in common with Melissa Caruso's Swords and Fire trilogy (for the magic, interesting 'love' relationships, and political drama) intertwined with the oriental focused fantasy awesomeness recently presented by Fonda Lee and RF Kuang. Mehr is a character that is well worth rooting for. She goes through so much and her character adapts to her often dire scenarios almost perfectly. It is an amazing journey that she goes through that was full of intrigue and emotion.
The narrative I analysed as being split into three sections. The very exciting and engrossing introduction that gripped me from the very start. Especially with the fluent and poetic world building from the beginning discussing the environment, magic, cultures and past histories. There is a twist and then the second section happens and although it's not set in a magic school these segments do have elements in common with those sort of stories. As mentioned, the world building, poetic language, and character interactions are well developed. Unfortunately, the middle section was not as enticing as the other aspects of the book although Mehr's relationship with a certain character was interesting to see how it progressed. I think Suri perhaps went into too much detail here about certain aspects I just didn't find involving, rewarding or that interesting. It was a bit bloated but I must compliment that throughout the tale as a whole that the prose is generally intoxicating massaging finer details, pictures, colours and poetry into the reader's mind. I won't discuss too much about the final third apart from that the conclusion was highly satisfying and fulfilling. Only one section towards the end seemed far to improbable and convenient even though it did make me happy that it happened. This is a complete standalone where all the arcs are 'put to bed' nicely, however, Suri is looking to write further works in this environment and I am unaware if they will incorporate the same characters.
I will discuss two other aspects quickly. Romance: I do not normally enjoy romance in the stories I read however, I think Suri worked this element into her tale expertly. This is quite a dark tale and I dislike getting thrown out of the darkness to a forced love story. The relationship here felt organic and like it really worked and not only suited the story but made it excel. Good work.
Finally, characters: Apart from the cultures and the magic, the colourful ensemble is my favourite element. I will not discuss them too much but look out for Mehr's step-mother (think how Catelyn Stark treats Jon Snow), the vindictive and crazy God-like Maha and the mysterious vow-bound shaman Asum.
Empire of Sand is an exciting, refreshing and dark debut featuring intricate and intriguing magic. The romantic elements are very well worked as is the unpredictable plot. It stutters slightly in the middle but that doesn't detract from how I greatly enjoyed this. Highly recommended.
James Tivendale - 8.3/10
Mehr has magic in her blood; a little spark of the divine passed down through generations, gifting some of the Amrithi with amata, allowing them to see daiva and dance rituals that shape the powerful dreams of sleeping gods. When she mistakenly unveils her true potential under a sky filled with dreamfire, it doesn’t take long for the Emperor’s mystics to arrive at her door, prepared with a scheme that will lead her to a mysterious desert temple where the Maha awaits. Here she will be tested and tormented even as raging storms fed by divine anger bring nightmares to life in the desert beyond. It is up to Mehr to prevent their awakening and the violent transition that would wreak death and destruction on the world. But she doesn't have to do it alone...
For all the magic, the true heart of this story is Mehr. A girl sheltered from much of the real life by her Ambhan father and the customs of Irinah society, yet still grounded by both hardship and love. The loss of her mother, the petty hatred of her step mother, and the wider persecution of the Amrithi in the city and Empire are balanced by the sharing of secrets and friendship with Lalita, the genuine affection for her younger sister, Arwa, and the ability to hold on to her heritage through her dancing, soothed each time she loses herself in the intricate steps. She’s a striking character: fierce and emotional, daring and resilient, aware of her own faults and failings yet willing to take burdens onto herself to protect others. Never perfect, but intelligently introspective and utterly believable. The reader experiences each crucial development in her sense of self, watching her work through her options to find and make the best decision, the right choice, even as she evaluates why and how others are making theirs. This is her journey, one with physical, moral, and spiritual aspects. It’s developed slowly, but evocatively described, moving through a vibrantly detailed landscape and a culture inspired by Mughal India. There’s a wonderful flow to the language, apparent from the first page to the last. And while there are certainly times when the pacing stuttered, especially the wandering middle section that struggled to add anything significant to the story, the finale upped the tension and had enough surprises to satisfy.
Even with the inclusion of darker themes (slavery, potential rape, discrimination, and cult behaviour/indoctrination), this felt like a young book, definitely more YA/teen than adult. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the youthful ever-after romance which, while integral to both plot and character, is still hard going for those who don’t usually favour love stories, especially ones with youthful protagonists. Nevertheless, it was utilised effectively to portray the ways in which bonds of trust and affection between people, romantic or otherwise, can be strong and durable, despite arriving in unexpected ways. The relationship between Mehr and Amun helps them both through the toughest times, teaching them about what it means to know or understand another person and to see them for who they really are. The message is clear: judge people on their actions and not the opinions of others, build trust and hold true to the promises you make to those you love. It’s an uplifting read with an overarching optimism, a kind of love conquers all narrative, but one that involves hard work and positive change. The moralistic vibe is easy to see, but developed within the show, don’t tell framework of character speech and action. And since the author’s argument is for representation, inclusivity, individuality, love, friendship, honour, balance… it’s one I have no issue getting behind.
It looks like the next in the series, Realm of Ash, will focus on Arwa, Mehr’s sister, possibly allowing this story to remain at what felt very much like its completed form, but still offering the reader a chance to return to this superbly developed world. But for now, if you’re looking for a story that’s diverse and beautifully rendered with love at its heart, this is well worth your time.
ARC via Netgalley
Emma Davis 8/10
8.2/10 from 1 reviews
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