Book Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

In the world of Empire of Sand, the gods have slumbered beneath the desert for thousands of years, raining down dreamfire to earth in awe-inspiring storms of light. Long ago, the Amrithi people and powerful supernatural beings known as daiva made a pact to protect one another, a promise still carried in the blood of all Amrithi. Now the Amrithi face a mounting genocide from an empire that views their power and their freedom as a threat.

As the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an Amrithi tribeswoman, Mehr is caught between two destinies–life as a privileged noblewoman and life as a hated Amrithi, subject to a constant threat of violence that not even her father’s authority can keep at bay. Mehr’s mother fled the city years ago, leaving Mehr and her little sister Arwa to be raised by a hostile stepmother who seeks to remove all trace of their Amrithi heritage. With the help of her mentor Lalita, Mehr has done her best to hold onto the memories and dance the sacred rites, and to help Arwa do the same–but when Lalita disappears, and Mehr makes the mistake of harnessing dreamfire to find her, Mehr attracts unwanted attention from the empire’s mystics, who wish to use her power for their own horrifying ends.

And then there’s Amun, a strange and stern mystic whose fate may just be forever bound with Mehr’s…

cover description: an ornate, jewel-encrusted dagger against a red starry background. the tagline reads: "Magic is in her blood."

First things first: I absolutely loved this book. It hardly needs me to recommend it after the rave reviews it’s already received, but I loved it so much I just couldn’t resist writing about it.

It’s rare to read an epic fantasy novel with stakes more compelling and well-crafted than Empire of Sand’s. Corrupt empires are par for the course in the genre, but few have ever felt as real and frightening to me as this one. Genocide is also a common part of fantasy worldbuilding, and this is one of the better iterations of that, too. It’s never cartoonish in its evil, just selfish and mundane in a way that is (unfortunately) very recognizable in genocides that are still happening around the world today.

Tasha Suri is able to translate the fundamental truth about all empires–that despite their ostentatious shows of power, they are deeply opportunistic, fragile, and lazy, built on the stolen gifts of others–into page-turning fiction. I love quippy anti-heroes and morally gray villains; I read for fun, after all, and those things are fun. But Empire of Sand manages to find the fun in more honest and righteous places. I’m in awe of how well it works.

Mehr has a lot in common with Immanuelle Moore of The Year of the Witching, a protagonist I’ve already written about loving. She’s thoughtful and quiet without becoming inert, devoted to family and friends without losing her own identity to them, and above all, brave and good. I loved her from the first page. In a sprawling, complicated world (my two paragraph spiel doesn’t even begin to cover everything going on in this book), Mehr is a perfect compass.

The characters around her are fascinating, too. Mehr’s stepmother’s actions may be unforgivable, but her motivations are understandable, even, sometimes, selfless. Mehr’s father is far from an overprotective and paternalistic caricature, but neither is he purely benevolent and kind. One of my favorite characters is Kalini, a vicious mystic who makes no secret of her disdain for Mehr, but whose truest loyalty turned out to be not at all what I expected.

And then there’s Amun, a character I mistrusted at first but grew to love so deeply that it physically pained me when he suffered. I won’t share too much, since his character arc is far too gut-wrenching to risk spoiling, but suffice to say that he put me in mind of Joscelin Verreuil from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels in the best way. He’s stubborn, loyal, and gentle even in his terrifying power. He counterbalances Mehr in all the right ways. I’m pretty sure Empire of Sand would work without him, but his presence is what tips this novel into an all-time favorite for me.

Empire of Sand’s ending is cathartic and intense beyond anything I expected. I cried all the way through it. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Realm of Ash, but I’m planning to take a break first–perhaps for the better, since a quick glance at its description seems to reveal a major time jump. But I know it will be waiting for me when I’m ready, and I can’t wait to dig in.

Empire of Sand is pure magic. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Originally published in November 2018 by Hachette Book Group.

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I bought my own copy of Empire of Sand and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.