Hey there, comrades! Today I’m going to talk about Tasha Suri’s debut novel, which has been on my radar for quite some time. I even talk about it in my most anticipated 2018 releases post. When it finally dropped, I was super excited to get started – but unfortunately, my blog hiatus happened.
Well, I finally got around to reading it just before the New Year festivities, and I finally finished it the morning of January 1st! And I think this is a great way to start the year because not only did I get to add one book to my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I got to add a five-star read to my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge!
So here’s what I thought of Tasha Suri’s amazing book!
Title: Empire of Sand
Author: Tasha Suri
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
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.
Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…
Trigger warnings: Graphic descriptions of injuries, ritual bloodletting, themes of colonialism and imperialism, depiction of a cult, depiction of slavery, descriptions of extreme thirst and hunger
☕ Quotes ☕
“But she had fought very hard to hold on to her heritage, and she would not discard it or make herself small without good reason.”
“When you dance with the Rite of Dreaming, you dance with the Gods.”
“The place beyond flesh. The place mortal minds drifted to when they dreamed. That was the place she had to go to.”
“The dreams of Gods were too huge, too beautiful, simply too much. They were everything that lived and everything that died: a great, weaving circle, the cycles of creation and destruction that molded all things. They were a knife to the hand and a field of metal and blood. They were glass and flame, earth and water, the way birth feels and a blinding tightness akin to dying. They were creation. Creation, in its headiest, purest form.”
“That was the kind of man he was -the kind who waited for her to find her small, inconsequential words even as a pain far greater than she could understand tried to eat him whole. A good man. The best man she’d ever known.”
☕ Plot ☕
I’ll be honest. The book’s synopsis didn’t exactly reel me in. What actually made me decide that I needed to read this book was that cover. Admit it – isn’t it one of the most gorgeous things you’ve ever seen?
I’m forever grateful to that beautiful Mughal dagger because it led me to discover one of the best, most well-crafted fantasies I’ve read, ever. Tasha’s debut is nothing short of magical. She tells the story of Mehr, a woman with a foot in two worlds: on her father’s side, she is Ambhan, a citizen of the powerful Empire that has conquered most of the known world; on her mother’s side, she is Amrithi, the desert people descended from the gods, with magic in their blood. As the illegitimate daughter of a governor, she is both privileged – safe from the Emperor’s purge of her kind, and oppressed – looked down upon by her father’s new wife, his servants, and other members of the Empire.
From this unique place in society, Mehr hopes to live out the rest of her days in relative obscurity, safe and unharmed. However, when a sandstorm – and sandstorms in the Amrithi desert are dangerous things, born from the dreams of the slumbering gods – comes to Irinah, where Mehr’s father is governor, Mehr finds herself unable to resist the call of magic thrumming through her veins and performs an ancient dance from her ancestors called the Rite of Dreaming, which is meant to keep a community safe from the storm and from the dreams of the gods.
Her magic draws attention from the Maha, the religious leader of the Empire, who leads a group of mystics deep in the Amrithi desert. He needs Mehr’s magic, and the magic of other Amrithi like her, in order to control the dreams of the gods to the benefit of the Empire. The Maha needs to keep Mehr under his control, and so decides to bind her using both aspects of her heritage.
I’ve never read another book like this one that so perfectly utilizes the concept of a colonizer using religion to instill and maintain their rule. True, this is a very literal interpretation, but it is a well thought out representation of the relations between church and state in an imperialist setting.
The way that the Maha binds Mehr to his service also sets the stage for a truly compelling storyline. He has her marry Amun, another Amrithi man he has enslaved, and makes no secret of the fact that if she does not comply, her family will be at risk. Marriage to Amun binds Mehr in two ways: as an Ambhan woman, any marriage she makes is sacred, and she is forever bound to her husband; and as an Amrithi with the gift of magic, any vow she makes binds her blood, body, and soul. Empire of Sand, therefore, is a love story wrapped in a tale of survival and sacrifice, and was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.
☕ Writing ☕
Be warned – if you’re the type of reader who dislikes slow-paced novels, you will have a difficult time with this book. However, I strongly urge you to power through anyway and finish it, because the payoff is worth it.
First of all, Tasha is a master at world-building. I admittedly know next to nothing about the Mughal Empire, and yet I could vividly see everything that she’d described in my mind’s eye, from the city of Irinah to the vast, open desert to the Maha’s temple, and of course the Ambhan gowns and traditional Amrithi outfits that Mehr wears (can anybody tell yet how much of a sucker I am for lovingly-detailed outfits?).
Another thing is that the magic system is so unique! It took me a while to really grasp it, but once I did, it was such a beautifully complex thing to read about! (And I learned from Nandini @ Unputdownable Books that the magic system is based on a form of Indian classical dance called Bharatnatyam!)
Tasha is also a master of chemistry. As you’ve probably gathered by now, Mehr and Amun do indeed end up falling for each other. But Tasha does it so well, y’all. First, they learn to rely on each other, as fellow Amrithi, and as prisoners enslaved by a cruel master. Then they become friends. And finally they realize how deeply they’ve come to care for each other. It’s beautiful to see how Mehr quickly comes to regard Amun as an oasis (yay, desert metaphors!) when surrounded by the influence of the Maha.
As I said earlier, one of the major themes of this book is sacrifice, and Tasha handles it magnificently. You can really see how Amun and Mehr’s feelings for each other grows and deepens, and how the thought of the other’s safety and happiness becomes paramount to them both. I normally don’t care for romances written into fantasy (mostly because the authors sometimes don’t handle it well), but I can definitely say that this book is a massive exception. I felt almost privileged – certainly lucky – to be able to witness Amun and Mehr falling in love despite everything. It was a great reminder of how humans have such a huge capacity for loving and caring for another despite being in dire straits themselves.
☕ Characters ☕
PROTECT AMUN AT ALL COSTS.
Sorry, I just had to get that out. My son has been through so much. He and his wife deserve to be SAFE AND HAPPY, okay?
But as much as I loved Amun, I have to say that this section of my review will be devoted solely to Mehr. It’s still early in the year, but I can confidently say that Mehr is probably going to end up one of my most favorite characters of my 2019 reads.
One of the things I adored about Mehr was how aware she was of the relative privilege she’d been granted as a half-Ambhan noblewoman, and the introspection she has on keeping her Amrithi heritage alive. Truthfully, not only did Mehr’s thoughts and feelings tell me a lot about the universe Tasha built, it also told me a little about Tasha herself, and her own experiences as an Indian woman growing up and living and working in the UK. It’s not often that a character grants a reader such thorough access into an author’s thought process, and I feel grateful to have been given that glimpse.
I also liked the interaction she had with the other girls who lived in the Maha’s temple, servants who were not big players in the game that encompassed the entire Empire, but who loved and worshipped the Maha wholeheartedly. They’re not evil, you can immediately see that, and her friendships with them play a large part in how Mehr perceives and thinks of the Empire. Y’all know I love a good female friendship, and these moments of respite that the servant girls gave Mehr were a necessary breather in an otherwise heavy tale.
☕ Overall ☕
Empire of Sand goes on and on at quite a plodding pace, but the reward you get is so worth it. If you want a nuanced, thought-provoking fantasy with a one-of-a-kind magic system and a toe-curling, heartbreaking romance, definitely pick up this novel!