John C Adams Reviews 'Empire of Sand'
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
I love Indian-inspired fantasy, and there just isn't enough of it around, so when I discovered Tasha Suri's debut novel from Orbit in 2018 I leapt at the chance to review it here at John C Adams Reviews.
Suri studied English and Creative Writing at Warwick University before becoming a librarian. That's the sort of path that often leads confidently to a writing contract with major publishing houses, and 'Empire of Sand' offers a welcome move away from the more traditional Eurocentric, Medieval inspiration for fantasy.
Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah. Her mother, long since disappeared from her life, was Amrithi, so Mehr's cultural and genetic inheritance is a constant source of tension. Her father is loyal to the Empire, her mother fought tirelessly to protect her own clan as the Amrithi face discrimination and prejudice that threatens their existence. Mehr's father has raised her in a traditional Ambhan way, which includes letting her choose her own husband. As a noblewoman, albeit born to unmarried parents, Mehr's future lies in marriage and providing children. However, an unexpected suitor is offered to Mehr by the Maha, a mysterious spiritual leader whose mystics bend the power of the Gods through prayer in the service of the Emperor. Mehr is keen to escape the cruelty of her stepmother and accepts the marriage offer of a stranger, Amun, regardless of the uncertainty about what it will mean.
This was a fantasy romance novel, courtesy of the focus on the growing relationship between Mehr and Amun after their arranged marriage takes place. It was good to see an alternative model of marriage explored beyond that of the archetypal, Western love story. Mutual respect and trust are built into a strong foundation between two strangers after their wedding ceremony. It felt different to a Eurocentric story of falling in love, to be sure, but it was fascinating as an exploration of how companionate love can develop in a different romantic tradition. As a reader I felt privileged to have been offered this glimpse into a different emotional world.
The story of 'Empire of Sand' was told in the third person with Mehr as narrator. It could have made an easy transition to the first person, which would have offered more intimacy of perspective to the reader. There was plenty of action and narrative tension, but the novel really had only the one plot strand, with other characters introduced at the beginning disappearing and the focus remaining on Mehr. I found the book a little slow as a result, and it also told Mehr's story without any flashback scenes to vary the narrative focus.
Mehr and Amun work hard to learn the sigils for a dance that will harness the power of the Gods during a storm when dreamfire descends. This can be used to support the Emperor, as the Maha has done before, or for other purposes more directly connected to empowering the Amrithi clan to which both Mehr and Amun belong. There was much that was mysterious about the power both Mehr and Amun learn to wield, and I loved the focus on dancing as a means to bend the will of the Gods to human ends.
The cultural underpinning of 'Empire of Sand' was that of Medieval India, with the injection of familiar fantasy elements such as sorcery, and it was a vividly built world that grounded the characters and made for a compelling story.
This was a very strong debut novel from Suri, and 'Empire of Sand' established a number of themes and preoccupations that the author has developed further in her most recent novel 'The Jasmine Throne', released by Orbit in June.
I have a very welcome two-week staycation coming up now, but I'll be back in a fortnight. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Many thanks to photographers Asif Akbar, Izabela Keppler and chappy14 for providing the images for this blog via freeimages.com.