The dreams of Gods were too huge, too beautiful, simply too much. They were everything that lived and everything that died: a great, weaving circle, the cycles of creation and destruction that molded all things. They were a knife to the hand and a field of metal and blood. They were glass and flame, earth and water, the way birth feels and a blinding tightness akin to dying. They were creation. Creation, in its headiest, purest form. She wasn’t made for this. She was small, far too small to survive.
I am beginning to think that we are at a new golden age of fantasy literature. I grew up on a steady diet of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, and too many Forgotten Realms novels than were healthy for me. Between Tolkien, the D&D world of Forgotten Realms and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of time, the worlds were imaginative yet had a lot of similarities to each other. These were tropes I grew up on and always went back to because they were familiar territory and easy enough to jump into. They were also influenced by many of the same Euro-Nordic and Celtic myths. As much as I love those, it is incredibly refreshing when something new comes along or in some cases something that is from a perspective based a different on history and myth
Tasha Suri’s debut novel Empire of Sand is a book influenced by the Murghal Empire without being a book about the Mughal Empire. It stands in its own universe of myth and lore. The world that she creates is very well realized, both epic in it’s scope yet is a personal journey. It’s use of magic is believable in not only that world but seems like it would have worked in ours a long time ago. The magic rituals seem to be based on Indian classical dances, mainly the Bharatanatyam.
Mehr is the privileged daughter of the Governor of Jah Irinah who serves under the auspices of not only the Emperor, but of the godlike Maha who is the real power behind the Ambhan Empire. His mystics pray for the fortunes and prosperity of the empire and or misfortunes of their enemies. Yet as privileged and sheltered as she is, she is an outcast in her own palace. her heritage is only half Ambhan as her mother was of a race considered barbarous, the Amrithi. Her mother, rather than let vows bind her to her father, she left to join her people out in the desert not to be seen again. Though Mehr is an outcast, her younger sister Arwa has been taken under the wing of Maryam, their step-mother. Yes, there is a (sort of) wicked step-mother. What mainly alienates her from everyone is that Maha still chooses to follow the ancient rites of her people such as ritual dances and the belief in daivas, djinn like creatures descendant from the gods.
It is not only beliefs but the power that manifests when she performs the ancient dances that draw the attention of the Maha’s mystics. They come to her father with an arranged marriage proposal. By tradition she has the right to turn down the proposal and her father advises so. but it is not a good idea to turn down the mystics, so to save not only her family’s honor but heir lives, she chooses to marry a servant of the Maha.
What will follow is the revelation of the truth behind the Maha’s power and his monstrous personality. Mehr’s journey becomes our journey as it is her point of view we follow except for a couple of brief chapters. Her journey is a personal one where she discovers the strength of the powers hidden within her rituals and power of vows that are truly binding. With all that going on, the foundation of the story and her motivations is a love story between her and Amun, the Amrithi man whose vows to the Maha and his mystics practically make him their slave.
Ms. Suri’s world building hints at a deeper and richer history than we are presented with. And that is a good thing. The illusionist’s best trick is leaving the audience wanting more. Since this is the beginning of a series (but the book can stand on its own) we can expect more of the mysteries of this world to open up on us. What we do get revealed to us is a world where the dreams and nightmares of sleeping gods can shape the very fate of an empire.
I cared a lot for Mehr’s struggles whether they be mundane ones or life threatening ones and found her to be a strong heroine who has to grow stronger as the world crumbles around her. There are moments of violence and physical abuse in the book that may be unsettling to some but it is never exploitative.
This is a highly readable book with relatable characters and I can’t wait to get to the next installment.
Current editions of Empire of Sand contain an interview with the author and a preview of the folow-up book Realm of Ash. I originally received an advanced copy through NetGalley but went ahead and purchased the book to suppor the author.