I went into Empire of Sand completely blind, without even having read the blurb. What I found was an engrossing story of entrapment, love, and divided loyalties (and not in the way you might think).
Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah, a desert province of the centuries-old Ambhan Empire. Mehr’s life isn’t easy; though she has is the daughter of an Ambhan nobleman, favoured of the Emperor, her mother is Amrithi, a member of nomadic desert peoples hated by nearly everyone in the Empire, and persecuted from birth. The Empire is built on law and faith, you see, and the Amrithi have no respect for contracts, which are the founding block of the “law” bit.
Our heroine doesn’t have it easy, even if she is a noblewoman brought up in comfort and protected from the cruelties of the desert beyond the palace walls.
All people faced hatred. All people suffered. Few had the cushion of wealth and privilege to protect them as Mehr did. She reminded herself of this as she walked over to the bare floor in front of the lattice, pressing her feet against marble warmed by the morning sun. She was very, very lucky.
Mehr lives under the tyranny of a step-mother with a particularly strong disdain for the young protagonist’s heretic Amrithi rituals. And Maryam wields a weapon of the greatest potency – she dictates how often Mehr can see her little sister, Arwa. Anytime Mehr shows herself a willful young woman, the consequences are dire – weeks, months even, without seeing Arwa; and much as Mehr can grovel and ask Maryam for forgiveness over trespasses real and imagined, there are some things she will not bend over.
The Amrithi are children of the daiva, spirits (or perhaps ‘creatures’ is more apt) of the desert, and children of the Gods. A lot of familial relationships to spring on you, to be sure, but this’ll pay off, I promise! The daiva used to walk in human guise, in the Empire’s earliest days, and to speak with human voices and possessed great and horrifying powers. They were feared, and with good reason, by all but the Amrithi, whom the daiva have promised never to hurt.
To the everyday Ambhan of the present, however, the daiva are a superstitious fool’s belief, something to mock the provincial Irin with. So when Mehr gets in trouble for using her blood to pacify a daiva that somehow got into her sister’s room, of course no one believes her. So it is that Mehr begins spiralling down a dangerous road, dejected and isolated in her own home; so it is that Mehr, in desperation, dances alone when a great storm comes to Irinah. So it is that the most dangerous servants in the Empire set their eyes on the half-blood noblewoman.
Soon enough, Mehr is bound to a husband from among the ranks of the Empire’s most secretive servants, the mystics of the Maha. Remember how I mentioned that the Empire is built not only on law but also on faith? Enter the Maha, the master-puppeteer behind the Empire’s ever-expanding influence. This chief antagonist, I would like to talk about—but if I do, I would be going into spoiler territory! Gah, the dilemma, the dilemma! Very well, I will stay mum on this subject.
Magic rests in the Amrithi blood. It’s powerful, but not too flashy; rather, it’s steeped in ritual, empowered by the movements of the Amrithi’s body, by different sigils. There’s something almost druidic about it, in the quiet respect towards nature. And seeing the author play with characters’ perception of these different Rites is very interesting and takes some of our main characters through a moral whirlwind.
I really enjoyed the ending of Empire of Sand. Although author Tasha Suri plans to write more in this setting, by book’s end, we have a solid conclusion to Mehr and Amun’s story. In an age of cliff-hangers as maddening as a Lovecraftian horror, I can really appreciate a novel that not only introduces a fantastic setting but also tells a self-contained story.
Alright! Now then, onto scoring this gem:
· Setting: 9/10 The Ambhan Empire with its millennium of prosperity provides an excellent backdrop to not only this story, but many more. I’m nowhere near close to having enough of this dense, bountiful world. Inspired by the Mughal era of India, this is a fantastic non-western fantasy that I highly recommend to all.
· Characters: 10/10 I’ve mentioned but a handful of the characters that appear within the pages of this excellent novel – there’s Mehr’s mentor, the beautiful concubine Irina; half a dozen fascinating mystics, whose faith in and service to the Maha is haunting in its fanaticism…oh, and did I mention Amun? Oh, I haven’t? Well, far be it for me to spoil one of my favourite male characters of 2018!
· Love story: 10/10 This was one of the most authentic love stories I’ve ever read. I’ll say no more for fear of spoiling it, but…it’s a damn masterpiece, I swear it.
· Antagonist: 9/10 Oh, Maha. This villain manages to be so much more than human while holding onto the very worst of what humanity has to offer.
· Pacing: 7/10 If there’s one critique I’d like to level at Empire of Sand, ‘tis this. The book is a slow burner, almost too slow. If you’re not okay with that, you might have some trouble with this, especially towards the middle. I burned through it after a short pause but not everyone might be as engaged by the world and characters as I was.
With this in mind, the book gets a rating of 4.5 out of 5! This will translate to 5 stars on Goodreads, 5 Stars on Amazon, and my very own, “Best Cover with a Dagger on It” reward! Additionally, you might fancy this book if any of the following appeal to you:
I truly enjoyed my time with Empire of Sand; it has given me yet another author to whose work I’ll look forward to, come 2019. It’s been a fantastic year, ladies and gents; I’ve never read so many novels from such a wide array of differing voices. But, as 2018 hasn’t ended quite yet, there are yet a few more cards in my hand. Next up, I’ll be posting a review of Torn by Rowenna Miller!