Book Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Books of Ambha
Publisher: Orbit (November 13, 2018)
Length: 496 pages
In the lusciously written Empire of Sand, debut author Tasha Suri takes readers on a journey to a south Asian-inspired fantasy world full of mysterious magic and spirits. A strong and alluring intro eventually gave way to a rather mild and slow-moving plot which is why I am only tentatively embracing this book with a middling rating, and because I didn’t find my attention hooked completely since the plodding pace made some parts of this a struggle to read.
In the beginning, we are introduced to Mehr, the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor of Ambha and an exiled Amrithi mother she barely knows. However, it is said that the Amrithi are a group of desert nomads descended from spirits, possessing the power of magic in their blood—a power that Mehr has inherited. Growing up in her father’s noble house, she clashed constantly with her stepmother, both of them vying for the responsibility over caring for Mehr’s little sister Arwa. Then one night, a winged demon called a Daiva invades Arwa’s room, and in her attempts to calm her younger sibling, Mehr is caught performing a forbidden rite bringing her magical lineage to the attention of the imperial mystics.
From that moment on, Mehr’s life is changed forever. She is subsequently forced into an arranged marriage to Amun, an Amrithi enslaved to the empire. Scorned by the other mystics, Mehr’s betrothed is nonetheless required for his role in a ritual which would solidify Ambha’s power and expand its borders. Since the rites can only be successfully performed by an Amrithi couple, Amun and Mehr’s fates were all but sealed, but working together with their wits and powers, they may yet find other ways to resist the empire and its cruel mystics, especially as their feelings towards one another deepen.
The first few chapters immediately drew me in. I loved Suri’s descriptive writing, and the characters and their dialogue attracted me with their charisma and emotions. The supernatural elements were introduced lightly, adding a bit of intrigue to the plot rather than overpowering it completely with talk of Daeva, spirits, or magic. The world-building is scrumptious, teasing, and mysterious—an uncertain quality at first, but you just know it will eventually take shape and grow into something more. And when Mehr’s magic was found out, the atmosphere felt as though the story itself was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next.
Sad to say though, that was perhaps the highest point of the book for me, at least for the next little while. What came next was about a couple hundred pages of very little action, but lots of observations by the protagonist as well as relationship building between Mehr and Amun. Speaking as someone who did not really expect this shift, the middle section of novel proved a bit tedious and a challenge to press through. However, for readers who prefer more calm “quiet” fantasy, especially those who like slow-burn romances, the style and tone of this book would probably be more to your liking.
The good news is, the characters are lovely. As the daughter of Ambhan nobleman and an Amrithi outcast, Mehr is an interesting figure struggling with her two conflicting backgrounds. She isn’t always bold or quick to take action, but she is more of a rational thinker and I appreciated the author for giving her protagonist a more level-headed personality. Mehr has found herself in a bad situation and while the odds may seem hopeless at times, she never lets them wear her down. She also has some compelling chemistry with Amun; it’s not really a fiery hot passion between them, but a softer more careful kind of love that grows sweeter over time. I can be quite picky when it comes to romance arcs and it’s not often they work for me, but I thought given how Mehr and Amun began, Suri handled the course of their relationship perfectly.
Ultimately, Empire of Sand could have been a more enticing read, but the slow-moving sections in the middle of the book really hurt my overall enjoyment. That said though, there are a lot of things going for it, and I will head into the sequel with hopes that the story will pick up in pacing and action.