Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri - 9/10*
Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand is an achingly beautiful novel of identity, pain, and dreams wrapped in a fabulously realized south Asian inspired secondary world. This story makes you feel the experiences the characters have. Both the setting and characters are brilliantly imagined and feel real in a way that is difficult to articulate. There will be moments when your heart breaks and moments when you thrill with hope.
There are three elements of Empire of Sand that I can’t get out of my head: the characters, the setting, and the magic system. Mehr, our protagonist, is the daughter of the governor of Irinah who has led a somewhat sheltered life. In the midst of this sheltered life, however, she has developed a very strong character. She knows what is right and wrong and acts on those feelings even when it may not be to her benefit to do so. Because the vast majority of the book is from Mehr’s perspective we spend a great deal of time in her head but this doesn’t become tiresome. The character is very well written and it was easy to root for her. Sometimes, when a book is almost entirely in one character’s head, the side characters can feel flat. That isn’t the case in Empire of Sand. Suri has given us not only a main character we can relate to and hurt with, but an entire cast of characters with their own motivations and foibles. Each of them feels alive. In fact, this novel works so well because of the relationships between characters. Of course, the relationship between Mehr and various antagonists is important, but her relationships with various side characters are part of what makes this novel so achingly beautiful. In addition to the characters, the setting and magic helped me fall in love with this book. You won’t find castles and western feudal lords in this novel. Instead, it’s inspired by Mughal India. Suri has crafted a secondary fantasy world that really shines. Perhaps most impressive, the world and magic are linked in a way that helps both to come alive. The mythology of the world is linked into the magic system and vice-versa and it all comes together in a way that is complex without feeling overly complicated. I tend to enjoy novels where magic plays a large role in the plot and where the magic system is less mysterious and more scientific, so-called hard magic systems. In her debut, Suri has managed to craft a system that is fascinating and interesting, but still very much mysterious. I loved it.
There were few things that didn’t work for me in Empire of Sand. One of those few things, however, was that on a very few occasions I was frustrated by characters’ seeming inability to be proactive. Because of the plot, Mehr finds herself often reacting to events, rather than making events happen. There was a particular section of the novel when I felt the story would have benefitted from more agency for Mehr. This was especially irksome because everything else was executed so well. There were a couple scenes in particular when I grumbled in my head about this, but on each of those occasions I was quickly swept back into the narrative.
Alternatingly grim and hopeful, Empire of Sand is a novel that shouldn’t be missed. This is character-drive fantasy with epic stakes set in a fascinating and unique would that makes you ache for characters as you come to love and understand them. I am eagerly anticipating the sequel.