Empire of Sand
by Tasha Suri
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…
Mehr is an Ambhan noblewoman, the daughter of a governor no less, but she’s also the daughter of an exiled Amrithi mother, meaning she’s constantly caught between two worlds and not entirely sure in which one she belongs. It’s only due to her father’s love and guilt that she’s able to practice the traditions her mother taught her before she left for the desert, but when she accidentally uses magic powerful enough to catch the attention of the Emperor’s mystics, Mehr’s life is suddenly no longer her own as she’s forced into an arranged marriage and a life of servitude.
Pretty much everyone who’s read Empire of Sand has been singing its praises, so it’s a novel that’s been on my radar for a little while now and one that’s come along at just the right time for me; I’ve been keen to read a lot more Asian-inspired fantasy this year, meaning this Mughal India-inspired tale had such a refreshing fantasy setting, and I’ve also been getting more and more into desert fantasy.
There’s so much I loved and appreciated about this book, and this is especially true of the romance. This is very much a fantasy book but, if you’re a romance reader, this is a novel you’ll want to try because the romance is still a big part of the story without becoming the central focus, and it’s such a tender romance at that.
In Ambhan society, a woman takes on her husband’s duties, responsibilities and loyalties, so Mehr is pushed into a marriage with Amun, who himself has orders he has no choice but to follow due to the vows he has made. Amun so easily could have been written as a rude and brooding type, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a love interest, in any genre, who understands consent the way Amun does. Neither Mehr nor Amun are particularly happy about their situation, when Mehr is taken by the Emperor’s mystics her life becomes a rather miserable one, but the two of them develop a friendship which in turn develops into something more, and in the process the two of them become each other’s safety net.
There’s a lot I loved about Mehr herself, though; she’s magically gifted, but her true power is an inner, moral strength to do the right thing even when the right thing is the thing most likely to get her hurt or killed. She loves her parents, and her parents love her, but neither of them have been what a mixed race girl in the Ambhan Empire has needed, and it’s been up to Mehr in turn to care for her little sister, Arwa, while their stepmother punishes her for being another woman’s daughter.
Mysterious, absent mothers are no stranger to the SFF genre—particularly in stories with young women at their centre—but what I loved about Mehr is that while she does understand why her mother made the decisions she made, she also doesn’t hesitate to call her out for not being the mother either she or Arwa has needed. I love women who are mothers still being allowed to be complex women who aren’t defined by their motherhood, but it’s also so satisfying to see children who have been left be given the opportunity to put their feelings into words.
I want to say as little about the plot itself as I can because it would give away too much of the book, and the joy of reading this novel is not quite knowing where the story’s going to go, but Suri’s writing is moreish and once I got into the meat of the story I found it very difficult to put down. Personally I would have liked a little more world-building, but it didn’t bother me because Mehr isn’t the right protagonist to teach us about the Empire—she doesn’t spend any time there, so it wouldn’t feel natural for her to pause everything she’s doing to give us a lore dump.
The world-building isn’t lacking by any means, it just left me with questions which I imagine are going to be answered in the companion novel. What I didn’t quite get from the world, though, I definitely got from the villain; he is the worst, and I can’t remember the last time I was so frustrated and disgusted by a villain. I wasn’t sure what to think of him at first, but by the end of the novel I desperately wanted Mehr to set him on fire. He’s awful, and the ideal villain if you’re the kind of reader who loves to hate your villains.
If you’re looking for a desert fantasy, an Asian-inspired fantasy, a standalone fantasy, or simply a good fantasy, you need to pick up this book. It’s so worth your time, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Tasha Suri.