Do you ever pick up a book in a bookstore, and just know that you’re going to love it? And then, some of the time, because that feeling secretly came just from liking the cover, you are horribly wrong. But on that rare, beautiful occasion, you and a book really do connect, and before you know it, you’re reading the ending, and crying your eyes out?
That was definitely my experience with Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, the first novel in The Books of Ambha duology. I hadn’t heard anyone else talking about the book before I read it, but from the moment I picked it up, I knew that I would love it.
The setting is rich and detailed.
The world that the book is set in, known as Ambha, is inspired by Mughal India, which comes across clearly in Suri’s writing. Everything from the social customs to the manner of dress references the Mughal empire, and yet Suri also does a good job of incorporating new and fantastic elements, making the world its own. The little details of the world are so well done. For example, I love the description of phenomena such as dreamfire. Suri’s lush writing creates vivid imagery throughout the book.
Mehr is my kind of heroine.
From the opening sentences of the book, we learn that Mehr, the main character, owns a dagger. Need I go on? My analysis of her is complete. Just kidding. I relate to Mehr for several reasons. She is prickly, and she knows that she doesn’t perfectly fit in the life that she’s been given. Due to her skin color and her mother’s Amrithi heritage, she’s an outsider in her own home.
Perhaps what I like most about Mehr is that she is incredibly strong, but not in a physical sense. Her great strength is endurance and survival. She outlasts a lot of the bad situations that the Maha, the religious leader who Mehr ends up in servitude to, puts her in. She finds a way to carry on, despite the people who want her destroyed because of her power.
The exploration of race and class dynamics are thought provoking.
Throughout the novel, Suri constantly explores the question of what it means to be an outsider, even one who has privilege. One example of this is that Mehr is the daughter of an influential, wealthy father, and her mother is from a people who are outsiders in the empire. Since Mehr is dark skinned like her mother and other Amrithi, she experiences more overt discimination than her light skinned sister.
Suri also does a good job of highlighting the destructivness of empires. The Ambhan empire is built on the manipulation of gods and the forced servitude of the Amrithi. It could not survive without those whom it subjugates, which is a cruel and unsettling paradox that is true of all empires.
The magic system and the mythology of the world are captivating.
All someone has to do to get me to read a book these days is say “there are gods.” The idea that the Amrithi people possess the ability to subdue the gods and make them sleep is engrossing. Unfortunately, the gods are kept kind of vague. I would have appreciated more detail about who they are and what their abilities are.
The connection between the Amrithi and the daivas is also very interesting. The fact that the Amrithi are descendents of the daiva harkens back to Mughal India. Mehr is a target because of her connection to the daivas, but also receives a measure of protection from them.
The magical rites, and specifically The Rite of Dreaming, are beautifully written. I appreciate the traditional aspect of the rites. Mehr is continuing the legacy of her people through performing the magical rituals, even though the Maha takes advantage of that.
The love story falls a little flat.
Amun, the love interest, is quiet and solemn, which I like. I generally like his personality. I think that there are some points in the book where he lacks chemistry with Mehr, however. Their romance is situational. They have trouble connecting at first, but after enduring a few trials together, they grow closer. Had they met while not under duress, I’m not convinced that they would be together. They do not seem to have enough chemistry on their own, and their connection was truly only from their shared experiences.
I think that their love story would have been better if Suri had given more details about how they felt about each other in the beginning of the novel, before their trials, and also if she had given more indication of Amun’s feelings in general throughout the course of the story.
The villain’s character arc ends badly.
I don’t want to go into much detail for fear of spoilers, but I feel that the conclusion of the villain”s character arc ends poorly. They are built up as an incredibly evil villain who spends the book torturing the main characters to no end, and the end of their story is unsatisfying because the main characters don’t have much of a hand in what happens.
All in all, I really love the world that Suri created here. I can tell that her writing is only going to keep improving.
I highly recommend this book.