Empire of Sand is one of those rare debut novels that doesn’t read at all like a first effort; Tasha Suri’s prose is strong and assured, her characters are nuanced and multi-layered, and her world-building is lushly detailed. Since Empire of Sand’s publication in November 2018, a sequel has been announced, along with the news of its being optioned for a television series, which is quite impressive for a book that’s only two months old as of this writing.
I disagree with Variety referring to Empire of Sand as Young Adult; though Suri’s protagonist, Mehr, does experience an intense coming-of-age arc over the course of the novel, the personal growth she experiences comes to define her as a fully-fledged adult who takes ownership of her life and her decisions. Though she’s spent all of her life sheltered within the walls of the governor’s palace, that governor — her father — and his esteemed Ambhan heritage are not strong enough to suppress the Amrithi features and magic from her mother’s side, which places Mehr at constant risk. The Amrithi people are hunted and subjugated at the behest of the Emperor, who fears the powerful magic they have access to; they once rose up against the very first Empero, assisted by powerful spirits known as daiva, but were defeated and have been enslaved and executed ever since.
Mehr has a younger sister, Arwa, who favors their father’s looks and is being brought up as a proper Amrithi lady by their stepmother, Maryam. Mehr and Arwa’s mother chose exile years before, rather than live in a sumptuous cage, and their stepmother can frequently be harsh and even cruel to Mehr in her efforts to make the young woman behave respectably. The keenest point of friction between Mehr and Maryam is Mehr’s insistence on upholding her mother’s teachings and traditions, particularly with respect to the daiva, who Mehr venerates with dance-like Rites and occasional small gifts of her blood. Such behavior is seen as barbaric, at best, and would be cause for severe punishment if she were caught, but Mehr is unashamed of her peoples’ traditions.
When an enormous dreamfire storm sweeps through the city of Irinah, Mehr ventures out alone in search of her mentor and fellow Amrithi, Lalita, but finds only death and mysteries, and is caught by guardsmen who see her bare face. Her actions and appearance cause so much disgrace that the only way to save her reputation is to leave home on a tour of surrounding lands in search of a suitable husband. But before she can leave, a husband comes calling at the behest of the Maha — the only person alive who is equal in power to the Emperor himself — accompanied by the Maha’s mystics, who are capable of magical prowess unlike anything Mehr had imagined. Marriage to Amun isn’t really a choice, as is quickly made plain to her and her father, but Mehr makes it her choice and takes control of her destiny (and she will do so, again and again) by choosing to marry Amun, who is both obviously Amrithi and obviously suffused with magic. Led by the mystics, they travel across burning desert sands to the Maha’s oasis stronghold, where Mehr gradually learns what he has in store for her, the grotesque terms of service between Amun and the Maha, and the strength of the magic and character she possesses, which must be relied upon to its breaking point if she is to prevent the world from plunging into chaos.
I found Empire of Sand to be a fascinating, gripping novel. The characters are engagingly complex, with logical reasons for the things they do (even when they’re wrong-headed or sometimes reprehensible), and Suri never takes the easy route by reducing them to basic types. Maryam’s short temper and disdain for Mehr’s heritage are rooted in genuine concern for her stepdaughters’ safety and well-being; the mystics will go to any lengths in order to protect the man who gave them the only shelter and safety they’ve ever known; even the Maha himself has moments of real humanity.
This is a book about power: its various shapes and forms; who gets to wield it, and how; the ways in which power can destroy or improve lives. There are scenes of physical abuse, in particular, which directly address the dynamic between abuser and victim without glorifying the abuse or praising the victim, and yet Suri makes the point that abusers commit violence in order to make another person feel powerless while elevating themselves — but the truly powerful person is one who chooses to be kind rather than cruel. It’s not just the personal politics of power at play here, but the larger, societal politics of hunting down or ostracizing people simply for having darker skin and different customs in order to reinforce their notion that their culture and appearance are the “right” ones. But it’s also a book about love, respect, and sacrifice, and the ways in which those make a person and the people they share those feelings with more powerful.
Suri fully brings this world to life, not only through her character work, but evocative descriptions of mundane details like the aromas of spiced foods or the grains of sand caught in Mehr’s clothes. Every situation is complicated and fraught with meaning — no moment is ever as cut-and-dry as it might initially appear. Good intentions can turn out badly, sometimes disastrously so. And the relationship between Mehr and Amun takes a path I so rarely see in fiction, one that is respectful and realistic, and acknowledges the complicating factors of their shared heritage and servitude to the Maha, which could be imitating deeper feelings that aren’t actually present. It’s so refreshing to see an author acknowledge that physical proximity and environmental stressors aren’t anything the same as genuine affection and appreciation.
I thought Empire of Sand was a wonderful, transportive novel, filled with magic and heart. I’m so glad Suri has a sequel in the works, because while this would read delightfully well as a stand-alone, I’m thrilled to know that there are more stories waiting to be told in THE BOOKS OF AMBHA. Highly recommended.
great review–raised my interest in this one which I’d been planning on passing on
Thanks, Bill! I think you’d enjoy this one.