I am conscious of the fact that most of my book reviews thus far have been positive. I think it’s natural that as I establish my blog, I write about some of my favorite novels. That being said, I have to note that even amongst my most treasured books, Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri is at the top of the list. I can’t think about this book without a weight settling in my heart because of how deeply I adore it. The love story in the novel is currently the standard by which I judge other literary romances. The fact that this is only Suri’s second published novel makes me anticipate her next release even more!
The premise of Realm of Ash is that the widowed Arwa finds herself working with an illegitimate prince named Zahir to find magic that will save the Ambhan Empire from ruin. Through their magical trials in the realm of ash, they reflect on their lives and begin to question whether or not the empire even deserves to be saved.
The heroine is deeply sympathetic.
In many cases, a book is only as good as its heroine. Luckily for Suri, Arwa is one of the best ever. I’ve written about this before, and I will repeat myself now: I love strong heroines, and I love it even more when their strength goes beyond their physical capabilities. Arwa is strong because, even in a society where her widow status renders her an outcast, she can’t help but stand up for herself when others try to put her down. Initially, she sees herself as a failure for not being able to live quietly, as a widow in Ambhan society should, but she comes to realize the futility of living a life without genuine expression. I appreciate that Suri manages to convey Arwa’s self doubts without ever rendering her maudlin. Arwa feels like a real person, even as she deals with fantastic magic.
The love interest lacks machismo.
For the sake of not giving too much of the book away in the review, I won’t mention the love interest by name here (although I know you have all figured it out already). What will I say about the love interest? He is refreshingly free from the constraints of toxic masculinity. Let us count the ways. He knows that he is not as strong as Arwa, he genuinely listens to her, he is in awe of her capabilities, and he says that he will come with her wherever she wishes to go in life without inserting his own agenda upon her. All he wants to be able to do is support her.
The love story is gripping.
This couple has so much chemistry. It blows me away. From the first time that the love interest is mentioned, I could tell that he had been designated by Suri as Arwa’s future partner, but even so their chemistry is almost palpable. I enjoy that both characters are too thick to realize what their feelings are for each other for a while. There’s a lot of long stares and awkward pauses and thoughts like “why does [redacted] make me feel this way?” It’s just so cute that they don’t realize that they are falling in love until it’s too late.
I adore Suri’s romantic prose. it’s easy for overtly romantic lines in books to feel cliche or cheesy, but they work in Realm of Ash. At the end of the novel, I was left with the sense that Arwa and [redacted] really are made for each other, and really would do anything for the other, which is high praise coming from my sometimes cynical soul.
The magic system is a device through which the inner conflict of characters is explored.
The realm of ash and accompanying magic is fascinating. I like it even better than the magic system in Empire of Sand (although the system in Realm of Ash can be viewed as an expansion of the system introduced in the first book). Among other things, the realm of ash is a shadow realm where Arwa can visit people from her past. Sure, she’s supposed to enter the realm of ash in order to find information that will help save the empire, but the realm is mainly a device through which Arwa reflects on her life, which I love. Suri often sacrifices the advancement of political plots for the sake of character development, which I fully support.
There isn’t really a conclusion to the political tension.
Is this really such a bad thing, dear reader? Suri has a fascinating quality to her writing that I just touched on, but will expand upon further. She has the ability to write amazing political tension, while also making it clear that it is a mere backdrop to the character development. Suri isn’t really interested in solving the problems of the empire in her books. She cares more about the development of her main characters, which is a quality that I can’t help but admire. If another author was writing this series, there’d be a third book in the works in order to tie up all the political loose ends, but I appreciate that Suri is the queen of character development, and can end things when her characters’ arcs are concluded, the empire be damned.
I highly recommend this book.