Caught one night performing these forbidden rites, Mehr is brought to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, who try to force her into their service by way of an arranged marriage…
When I received an advanced review copy for Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, the flap text on the back immediately caught my attention. Couple that with the fact that the author is a librarian and I was sold—hey, I never said I was a tough sell. But what I found in Empire of Sand was even better than I’d expected based on the cover copy. I’d expected to find an adventure and maybe a romance, which I found, but it also contained a deep exploration of the nature of consent and free choice.
The world in which Empire of Sand is set is stunningly gorgeous. The world has a richness of detail and atmosphere that oozed of the page. The depth of the culture and the characters that inhabit it, were enthralling. My favourite parts of the cultural world-building were the Amrithi rites and their connection to the Daiva. I loved that the Amrithi express their worship through dance. And that their gestures were a way to communicate with the Daiva. It made me think about traditional Balinese and Javanese dances were every movement has meaning. The way that the Ambhans have colonised much of the world, try to impose a cultural hegemony upon their subjects, and exploit the Amrithi to serve against their best self interests, was a stark statement on our own history.
Mehr was such a powerful character. Her determination to not give up her Amrithi heritage even if it would be simpler and safer to fully embrace her Ambhan side drove much of the narrative. She never allows choices to be forced upon her. The moment she chooses to leave with the mystics to keep her family safe was both heart-breaking and glorious. I loved the relationship that developed between her and Amun. While their marriage is forced and Amun seems as averse to it as Mehr is, they slowly come to trust each other. Their marriage vows interlock with the separate vows they make to each other and with vows they’ve made previously. The way Suri plays with how these vows are layered and thus given precedence was fascinating and in the end surprising. While she dropped in clues to the importance and power of vows in this world, Suri surprised me with how she then used that element to solve one of the plot points.
The exploration of consent and free choice was interesting, especially with the oath bound constraints placed upon Mehr and Amun. Mehr’s marriage is forced, because she isn’t given a choice in her partner, yet at the same time she chooses to go with the mystics to keep her family safe even when given the choice to flee. Amun may not have chosen to marry Mehr, but he chooses not to consummate their marriage. When Mehr chooses to do so, she only does so when Amun consents to the full consequences of that act. Within their bondage they find ways to grasp a measure of autonomy, however small it may be. In a way, Mehr’s missing the cover and freedom provided by her veil and the screens behind which Ambhan women must stay when in the presence of men outside their family, is also a play on how we perceive freedom and choice.
One last element that I really loved about Empire of Sand is the many depictions of motherhood. There are various mother figures and for each of them their role takes a different shape and affects Mehr differently. There is her stepmother Maryam, who is more an adversary than a mother to Mehr. And while Maryam is awful to Mehr and a bigot who wants Mehr’s little sister Arwa to pass as fully Ambhan, Mehr recognises that she genuinely cares for Arwa. In her misguided way she wants the best for her. The natural mother substitutes we often encounter in these sorts of storylines is the dedicated nurse. Nahiri truly cares for Mehr and Mehr loves her, but they both recognise that their time together has passed, that Nahiri’s main responsibility now lies with Arwa. Mehr’s true substitute mother and mentor is Lalita. It is Lalita who teaches her the Amrithi rites, it is Lalita Mehr longs to consult when a mother’s counsel is needed. Mehr’s feelings for her biological mother are complicated, because she loved her fiercely, but has also felt utterly abandoned by her and she hasn’t yet allowed herself to feel the anger that abandonment has caused. All of these women have shaped Mehr, for better or worse.
Empire of Sand is an impressive debut. It is one of my favourite books I’ve read this year and I cannot wait to see what Tasha Suri writes next. Whether it is more in this world or whether she builds a new one, I’m sure it will be excellent. If you are looking for an exciting, immersive story that will leave you with plenty of food for thought over the holidays, then I cannot recommend Empire of Sand highly enough.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.