Monday 3 December 2018

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Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri (eProof)

Published: 19th November 2018 | Publisher: Orbit | Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Tasha Suri's Website

A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood. An empire built on the dreams of enslaved gods. Empire of Sand is Tasha Suri’s captivating, Mughal India-inspired debut fantasy.

The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda.

Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance...
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I received this eProof for free from Orbit via NetGalley for the puposes of providing an honest review.

Trigger Warning: This book features violence against women, extreme pain, and an attempt to force someone to rape another.

An Indian inspired high fantasy, I'd been looking forward to reading Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri from the moment I first heard about it. The world Suri has created is beautiful and dark, and the story was even better than I was expecting!

Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah, and an Amrithi woman. Because of her father, she is a noblewoman living in comfort; because her mother is Amrithi, she is loathed and abhorred by the Governor's staff and his wife. Thought to be heathens and barbaric, and because they refused to support the Emperor centuries ago, the Amrithi are outcasts, nomadic people living in the desert, who are shut out from society.

Because of this, Mehr must practise the beliefs and rites of the Amrithi people - taught to her by her mother and, after her mother's exile, by her mother's friend, Lalita - in secret. The Emperor is coming down more strongly on Amrithi people, and wants them sought and thrown out or killed, and she is urged to be more careful when it comes to practicing the rites. But when a storm comes, showering Irinah in Dreamfire, and Lalita doesn't show up to perform the rite, she goes searching for her, performing the rite among the Dreamfire as she does. Doing so alerts the mystics - the servants of the Maha, the first Emperor who is now immortal, and leader of their faith - of the magic in her blood, and through strategic politics, forces Mehr into a marriage with one of their people. When she gets to Maha's temple, she discovers there's more to prayer and more to the Empire's success than she believed, and that there is darkness and cruelty hiding behind the Maha's benevolent mask. She is wanted for the magic in her blood, to be used as a tool, but it might just be the magic in her blood that saves the world from the revenge of the awakening Gods.

I am unable to tell you how amazing this book is! The world building is just incredible! The empire is based on the Mughal Empire, and the Amrithi magic and the daivas are inspired by Hindu beliefs and epics. Long ago, the Gods had children - the daiva, spirit beings who once walked the earth along with people, but they have grown weak over time. The Amrithi people are descendants of the daiva, so their magic comes from the Gods themselves. Now, the gods sleep, their dreams shaping the world and all that happens in it.

This is the world Mehr lives in, absent her mother for the past nine years. Amrithi people do not make vows or contracts, so Mehr's mother refused to marry the Governor. She lived and loved as his mistress, but after the birth of her second child, Arwa, she became home sick for her people and the desert, so the Governor exiled her, forbidding her to return. It's his guilt at sending her mother away that allows Mehr to privately practise the rites of her mother's people, with the guidance of Lalita, an Amrithi woman who masquerades as a woman from Chand for her own safety. Mehr has the privilege that comes with being a nobleman's daughter - the wealth, the luxury, the right to wear the veil when around men outside her family - but suffers from the prejudice that comes with being her mother's daughter, especially from her stepmother, Maryam, who despises her. Along with this prejudice is colourism; the Ambhan people - her father's people - have light brown skin, while the Amrithi people have dark brown, so you have Ambhan people spotting Amrithi just by looking at them.

'To be Ambhan in an Ambhan world, to have light brown skin and lighter eyes, and straight hair and fine bones, was to be beautiful and to belong.' (p186)*

But with Lalita's disappearance during the storm, and Mehr performing the rite amongst the Dreamfire, trying to find her, the mystics become aware of her, she's forced into a marriage no-one but the Emperor and the Maha want, and taken to the Maha's temple. It's then that the story really gets going. There is a reason Amrithi people do not make vows and do not marry, and the Maha knows this. Now Mehr is married to a mystic - a fellow Amrithi - she is under the Maha's control.

Oh my god, the Maha has got to be one of the worst villains I've ever come across. The mystics were pretty much illegitimate or orphaned children who had no place in society, and would not have survived. But the Maha took them in, gave them a home, food, and a purpose in prayer. The Maha was kind and good, and the mystics are pretty much fanatical in their worship of him. Because that is what the Maha expects, worship. He has found a way to keep himself alive for centuries, he has power, and he thinks himself a god. But he rules with an iron fist. The mystics are so grateful for his kindness, they fall at his feet, and he needs not treat them any differently. But he is power hungry, and he needs Mehr, and Amun, her husband, to use the magic in their blood for his ill-gotten gains. He is also a man who delights in his power over other people. He likes to see others suffer, especially women, and if you fail him, the consequences are extreme. Mate, he made me feel sick. He is beyond cruel, he is evil. But there was also something familiar about him. Yes, he has magical power, but it could be seen as a metaphor for male privilege, with the Maha a man who uses that power to subjugate, hurt and control women, and do whatever he wants with them. He is absolutely terrifying.

'He was not as a God to her. In his smile--even in his eyes--she saw his humanity like a blazing light, a harsh desert sun that illuminated all and left all secrets bared. [Redacted]--so his mystics fell at his feet, worshipped him. He was still nothing but flesh. He hungered for power as a human hungered. He enjoyed hurting her as a mortal man enjoyed crushing another mortal underfoot. He was a man who took pleasure in hurting a woman. His evil was born from his humanity.' (p258-259)*

But it's now all awful. There is a beautiful slow burn romance between Mehr and Amun. Neither of them chose this marriage, and both are bound to the Maha, doing his bidding without choice. But Amun is kind, and he tries to shield Mehr from the worst of it. Partly because he's just a good and decent guy; being the Maha's tool is practically all he's ever known, and he doesn't want the suffering and the pain and the lack of control for Mehr. And partly because he's not a monster, trying to resist a vow he's made for as long as possible, a vow that will lead to pain for Mehr. And Mehr sees that. She sees that he's decent, and she sees that he's fighting for her sake. The other mystics aren't Amrithi, so they share the prejudice against Amrithi people, and treat Amun awfully, though being half Ambhan saves Mehr from it. They are each other's light in a world that is dark and with very little, if any, hope. And slowly, they begin to fall for each other, and it's just so gorgeous and so pure, and I loved it!

Mehr herself was just incredible. She's not badass. She's lived in comfort and luxury her whole life, has never worked, and so is not physically strong. But her strength lies in her hope, in how it keeps her going, her search for escape for her and Amun, her plans and her strategies, and the actions she takes. And her strength is in her resilience, when things are beyond hard, when despair is all there is, when she doesn't feel she can take any more, she keeps on keeping on, and tries to shield Amun from the worst she is feeling. She is just incredible, and I was in awe of her, of her and Amun. Just incredible.

'She allowed herself to tremble, feigned being a thing bent and broken by his cruelty. She did not have her jewels or her fine clothes, but she had this power, at least: She could give him a simulacrum of what he desired from her, and hold her crumbling strength tight.
Let him think he had broken her. As long as he believed he already had, as long as she fooled him, he would not succeed in truly doing so.'

Empire of Sand is an absolutely fantastic novel, and not only that, written by one of our UK authors of colour. It's lush and dark, beautiful and ugly, full of hope and full of fear, and it is just a triumph. I am so, so looking forward to reading the follow up, Realm of Ash

Thank you to Orbit via NetGalley for the eProof.

*All quotes have been checked against a final copy.

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