EMPIRE OF SAND by Tasha Suri (BOOK REVIEW)
What are you supposed to do when you have lost the war and every possibility of victory has been absolutely, thoroughly annihilated?
Tasha Suri’s debut novel is a rich, heady dive into a Mughal-inspired world of magic, tradition, divinity, and power plays.
Mehr is the cherished older daughter of a governor losing the games set by her step-mother, which see her beloved younger sister used as a harness with which to control Mehr’s impetuous ways. Her mother’s heritage, the magic which courses through her blood, is heretical; a link to the gods of the past who attempt to manifest through sand storms.
She escapes this net to be ensnared in a much more dangerous one, when the religious leader of the Empire arranges a marriage between her and one of his acolytes. Together, they must learn the dance rite of their people to syphon the power of their devas for the use of the Maha; a truly ruthless and believably vicious adversary.
Suri’s fantasy Empire is thick with rules and traditions, hierarchies and minorities. This is a world crafted with dedication; immersive and intoxicating in its details and portrayal. Suri’s lavish descriptions truly brought this world to life for me, and it was a joy to follow Mehr through her palace and so easily be able to imagine it all. Suri’s wonderfully lyrical prose stimulates the senses and transports you completely.
Mehr herself is a strong female protagonist, but Suri explores a very different kind of strength in her protagonist. Mehr is not a sword-wielding shield maiden; yet she can face the storm swirling around her, and she can brave the threats and coercions levelled against her, in order to follow her path. Her strength lays in her resolution to stay true to herself and celebrate her heritage, which everyone around her would see her repress. It’s a deeply personal manifestation of that colonial system of erasure in order to suppress; a theme explored not just through Mehr’s personal situation but in her wider world through the persecution of the Amrithi.
This novel lacks the multi-perspective myriad-thread plots typical to the genre, but instead plumbs the depths of one woman’s attempt to survive and be loved in the face of everything her imperialistic colonisers can throw at her. It is a claustrophobic battle for free-will, for the small and personal victories, against powers far removed from your control. This is not a high-octane action epic, but rather an insidious slow burn to savour. And speaking of slow burns, my god the love story that weaves through this book is just that; slowly unfurling, simmering, burning. Heart-breaking. Desperately following Mehr as she finds a spark of love to nurture for her own in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Attempting to protect someone by denying your love for them, whilst at the same time needing them to know their loved in order to save them. Mehr and Amun’s fragile love left me aching.
He kept one hand on her cheek, his body entirely still, as if he were afraid a sudden movement would shatter her. But he couldn’t, wouldn’t, shatter her.
Although Empire of Sand may not suit every fantasy reader out there, I for one fell head over heels in love with this world and Suri’s prose. It’s a book to savour and take your time with, as timeless as the sands themselves. I can’t wait to return to the Ambhan Empire in Realm of Ash, or to see what Suri does next with her upcoming The Jasmine Throne.