REVIEW: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
Dear Ms. Suri,
When I was queried by your publisher about reviewing Empire of Sand, your debut and a fantasy novel set in a world inspired by Mughal India, I thought it sounded promising, and I asked for an ARC.
Mehr, the heroine of our story, is one of two illegitimate but acknowledged daughters of the governor of Irinah, a province of the Ambhan Empire situated near the desert. The empire’s population is diverse and while her father is Ambhan through and through, Mehr’s mother comes from an Amrithi background.
Mehr’s parents were unmarried but lived together for a time. As the book begins, they split up several years earlier, and when her mother decided to leave Mehr’s father and their daughters, Mehr’s father presented her with an ultimatum—if she left, he would banish her. She chose to leave anyway, and thus, Mehr and her younger sister Arwa have not seen her since. Arwa hardly remembers their mother or her Amrithi ways, but Mehr does remember.
The Amrithi are hated throughout the Ambhan Empire. They live mostly in desert tribes, partly because of this persecution. Amrithi have darker skin and magic in their blood. The magic comes from their ancestry; Amrithi are descended partly from daiva, magical creatures who present a danger to other mortals, but not Amrithi. And daiva are said to be descended from the gods themselves.
After her mother left them, Mehr’s father married a woman named Maryam, and Maryam, like many Ambhans, hates the Amrithi. Maryam is nonetheless kind to Arwa, because she cannot have children of her own and she believes she can raise young Arwa as an Ambhan. But Maryam does not have the same affection for Mehr, due to Mehr’s dark skin and Amrithi ways.
Maryam doesn’t want Mehr to cling to Amrithi customs much less teach them to Arwa, but Mehr constantly pushes the envelope and her father, who feels guilty for having banished her mother, lets her do so despite Maryam’s wishes.
Even though she is half-Amrithi, Mehr leads a pretty privileged life. Her father is the governor of the province, after all, and this affords Mehr a lot of creature comforts but gives her some blind spots as well. She does not realize just how fiercely the Amrithi are being hunted by the Saltborn, mystics who serve the Maha, the powerful leader of a cult-like religion.
Mehr has an Amrithi friend and mentor, Lalita, who teaches her to dance the Amrithi ritual dances. A dreamfire storm is now approaching, a time when magical dreamfire will fall from the sky because the gods are dreaming. It is said that what the gods dream becomes manifest, and so dreamfire storms are a time to dance the sacred Rite of Dreaming.
Mehr and Lalita plan to dance the rite together, but before the storm, the Saltborn track down Lalita. The bravery of Lalita’s bodyguard and friend, Usha, buys Lalita some time, and she escapes into the desert in search of the clan she left long ago.
On the night the dreamfire begins to fall, when Lalita does not come to visit Mehr, as she promised to, Mehr is certain something is wrong. To find Lalita, Mehr leaves her house without a palanquin or an armed entourage, something that as an Ambhan noblewoman, she must never do.
Mehr does not remember the way to Lalita’s home, but she asks the dreamfire to guide her there and it does. At Lalita’s house, Mehr finds a dying Usha and tries to minister to Usha, using her veil. Usha dies anyway, and Mehr must return to the governor’s palace unveiled, so she is in disgrace.
Mehr’s father then forces the issue of her marriage—Mehr must leave Irinah and choose someone from another province to marry, because her performance of the rite has reminded people of her Amrithi blood, and she and her sister are now in danger.
Before Mehr can leave with Maryam and Arwa, five Saltborn mystics arrive at the governor’s palace and announce that the Maha has arranged a marriage for Mehr. This is highly unorthodox; Ambhan women have the right to choose their husbands, and Mehr is half-Ambhan.
Mehr’s father is prepared to go to war over Mehr’s rights, but Mehr knows that if he does, he, his servants and his friends will all die. So Mehr insists that she’s choosing to marry the man the Maha has picked out for her.
That man, Amun, is almost completely swathed when Mehr first sees him. Mehr asks him to vow to be kind to her, and Amun agrees. Ambhan brides vow to take on the burdens of their grooms and when Mehr recites this marriage vow, she feels pain flare in her chest.
When at last Mehr and Amun are alone to consummate their marriage, and Amun is revealed to her, Mehr realizes that he is Amrithi. Not only that, there are words tattooed all over his body. But these, Amun tells her, are not truly tattoos but vows to the Maha.
Amun explains that the reason Amrithi never marry is because vows bind them completely and forever, and are magically written on their skin when this happens. Amun has vowed himself to the Maha and now he must obey the Maha’s commands. The pain Mehr felt in her chest was her own vow to carry Amun’s burdens. When the marriage is consummated, Mehr will be completely bound to carry out the Maha’s commands just as Amun is, because that is one of Amun’s burdens.
Mehr is horrified, but Amun has no wish to consummate the marriage. The Maha expects him to, though, and Amun can only delay obeying the Maha. Mehr does not yet know this, but Amun has no love for the Maha. He obeys the letter of the Maha’s commands but not the spirit so he can have a little agency.
The Saltborn mystics who arrived with Amun surround him and Mehr the next day and guide them through the desert to the Maha’s temple. There, Mehr discovers that the Maha has immense powers that allow him to partially control Mehr. Nevertheless, she is determined to escape.
To keep the Maha from discovering that she is not yet completely bound to him, Mehr must pretend that she is. When she is not alone with Amun at night, the Maha has eyes on her constantly, and lying to him is difficult too.
Mehr learns from Amun that she’s there because when she danced the Rite of the Dreaming, she revealed that she possesses the amata gift, a special ability only certain Amrithi have. There is a rite called the Rite of the Bound, which the Amrithi consider sacrilege. The rite influences the dreams of the gods so that they manifest the Maha’s wishes and the mystics’ prayers—for the Ambhan Empire’s success and the Maha’s unnatural longevity.
Over time, as Mehr gets to know Amun, she realizes how kind and brave he is beneath his demeanor of defeat and her goal changes. She wants not only to escape, but to free Amun as well. But can Amun, who vowed his servitude to the Maha, ever be freed?
Empire of Sand has a lot going for it. Mehr is vividly portrayed in her rebellious spirit, strength, determination, friendliness and compassion. She feels very real and it is easy to like her.
Amun started out as someone I felt sorry for, with his hunched shoulders and his subservience to the Maha, but gradually it becomes clear just how strong he is, though his strength is very different from Mehr’s. Not only has he endured a great deal, but he chooses to endure much more for Mehr’s sake.
The secondary characters are distinctive as well, from Mehr’s father and Maryam to Lalita, Usha, and Nahira, Arwa’s nanny who has had a hand in raising Mehr as well. There are also a group of girls Mehr befriends at the temple, Kalini, a fanatical follower of the Maha, other mystics and Amrithi, and of course, the Maha himself, who is creepy and disturbing, as an effective antagonist in a story like this should be.
The romance is central to the story, so much so that the book is almost as much a fantasy romance as a fantasy novel with romantic elements.
The worldbuilding is strong. The world feels so real that you can almost step onto its shifting desert sands. At no point did I need to suspend my disbelief, and the magic system is inventive and fresh.
The pacing is a touch slow, but the main issue I had is that half the book is dark and at times things seem painfully bleak. Mehr often doesn’t have real choices; for example, when she marries Amun, it’s to save her father’s life, and even when she choose that, she doesn’t know that marriage can bind her to Amun and the Maha for life. There were a few points in the story where Mehr’s situation got so dark that I read only a little at a time because of my dread. I was also in tears frequently.
Ultimately, things worked out and the ending was happier than I thought it could be. I’ll be interested to see where the next book in the series goes, and if it’s about Mehr and Amun, or other characters. Grade: B.