Why You Need to Read: “Empire of Sand”

The Books of Ambha: #1: Empire of Sand

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 13, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

Winner of the Brave New Words Award 2019

            The Emperor’s hatred had not grown suddenly, as Mehr had so foolishly believed when Maryam had warned her of his messages to his nobles. His hatred was a storm that had grown ever larger by feeding on itself, and Mehr had been protected from the full weight of it by the shelter of her privilege and of the very Ambhan walls that so stifled her. Now the storm was too great for even Mehr to ignore. Her status as the Governor’s daughter couldn’t protect her forever. She had Amrithi blood, and the Amrithi were being erased, (Chapter Two). 

            I’ll repeat what I’ve said about the speculative fiction released in 2018: it was the best year yet! There were many debut novels that gained the acclaim of fans and critics alike. In addition, there seemed to be a debut novel that represented each region of our world. Tasha Suri is one of many whose novel takes place in a historical fictionalized Middle East. Empire of Sand reflects on the notions of “old magic” and the oppression of the users that comes with it from those with political power. 

            Mehr, who is 18 years-old, is the eldest illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah. Mehr and her younger sister, Arwa, who is 9 years-old, live with their father and their stepmother, Maryam, at the Governor’s home. As daughters of a nobleman, the sisters live sheltered lives of luxury; as daughters of an Amrithi woman, the sisters have magic in their blood. Mehr is old enough to remember their mother and has accepted the customs of her mother’s people. Arwa is too young to remember their mother, but Maryam has no issue with raising and molding Arwa into an Ambhan noblewoman. Obviously, Mehr and Maryam are at odds with each other and it seems that the girls’ father is unaware of the relationship between his wife and his daughters. As paranoid as Maryam is, it turns out that she is right to be worried about Mehr’s rebellious behavior. When Mehr defies her family’s wishes and her mother’s cultural paranoia, she is married off and sent away to become a “tool” of the Empire. She is married to Amun, a full-blooded Amrithi who has been a captive of the Maha—mystics of the Religious Order—since he was a child. Married, isolated, and far from home, Mehr has to figure out how to survive her new life, to stay alive, to determine who is trustworthy, and to determine how much magic she has and what that means for her. Throughout the novel, Mehr grows into a powerful woman who embraces both her magic and her culture as she interprets the use of her power for the good of everything she cares about.

            The plot of the story follows the culture and the traditions of South Asia, along with its dark side based on historical events. “The rule of law and rule of faith are tied together. One cannot exist without the other,” (p.76). The Maha—the one in charge of the mystics—founded the Empire, so the Emperor and all of the Ambhan are “blessed” with their fortunes and lifestyles because of them. However, when angered, or demand something and are denied, the Maha can become anyone’s worse enemy. And, Mehr has alerted the Maha of her presence and her heritage. The mystics demand that she serves “for the Maha and the Empire.” Mehr knows that this goes against the practices of the nobles and her father threatens to rebel. Mehr gives into the demands in order to protect her family, especially Arwa. The plot develops as Mehr grows into herself and she learns more about the Maha and the Empire. She learns the reasons why her mother left her father, and her father’s neglect to teach her what she needed to know about herself and the Empire. Mehr soon realizes that power is determined based on who wields it. And, if the Emperor looks to the Maha for power, then does that mean the Maha hold the power? The subplot here is family and the bonds that come with it. Mehr sees herself as her mother’s daughter to the horror of her stepmother. Maryam, who has not been able to have children of her own, claims Arwa as hers and does everything in her power to keep the sisters apart. While her abuse of Mehr and harsh upbringing of Arwa is disturbing, her paranoia is justified when the Maha demand Mehr to be delivered to them. At the same time, Mehr learns more about her mother and father’s relationship as well as the decisions they made together and separately. This subplot is essential to the plot in that all of Mehr’s decisions are based on what’s best for her family. 

            The novel is told in real-time from the point-of-view of Mehr. With the exception of 3 chapters from 3 minor characters, the narrative is told in 3rd person free indirect discourse. In other words, readers are aware of all of Mehr’s thoughts, impressions, and perceptions—a.k.a. stream-of-consciousness—and, given the mistakes Mehr makes throughout the story and her known flaws, she is a reliable narrator. 

            The style Tasha Suri uses in her novel presents the various lifestyles people of different classes and faiths have even in modern South Asia. The descriptions of the different homes and clothes display the distinction between cultures and social classes. The word choice and the figurative language that illustrates the lands and the dances gives the beauty of the two to the readers. The mood in this story is the beauty of the Empire, which the Gods created. Yet, the tone in the novel is the balance of the world and the consequences of any unbalance in the world whether or not it’s from divine intervention, societal expectations, or parental influence. In all, the style presents how beauty in the world can remain if there is a balance. 

            The appeal surrounding Empire of Sand have been immensely positive. The novel has received positive reviews from critics, readers, and other authors. The novel has been nominated for several awards including the Locus Award; and, it won the Brave New Words Award in 2019! This fantasy novel is a beautiful debut and a wonderful addition to the speculative fiction genre. Fans will want to re-read Empire of Sand, especially before the sequel, Realm of Ash, is released in November 2019. I should warn readers that in addition to familial abuse and neglect, there is a scene in the story that contains non-consensual sex, and scenes of torture and murder. Other than those scenes of trauma, the novel is worth reading and the follow-up looks to be very promising, too.

            Empire of Sand is a beautiful debut novel about the history of an empire that struggles to maintain control of everything and how the bonds of love and family can help an individual endure suffering. Even though there were some flaws surrounding the pacing of the novel, my love of the characters is what kept me reading this novel. Empire of Sand was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018, and I’m really excited for the next book in the series, and any future books by the author!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

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Why You Need to Read: “The Gutter Prayer”

Book One of the Black Iron Legacy: The Gutter Prayer

By: Gareth Hanrahan

Audiobook: 16 hours 58 minutes

Narrated by: John Banks

Published: January 15, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark 

WARNING: This review contains some spoilers. You have been warned. 

…the thieves—the ghoul, the Stone Boy, the nomad girl…(Prologue).

            All readers have at least this one thing in common—so many books and very little time to read them all. With so many books—in all genres—being released to the acclaim of both critics and readers, there are moments when a reader does not know which book to read next. Also, there are times when a reader wants to read a book but has to find a way to read it alongside the other books they are reading. In this case, I wanted to read The Gutter Prayer—a grimdark fantasy debut novel by Gareth Hanrahan—which, I have heard nothing but positive things about the book. However, I didn’t have time to read my eBook copy, and I did not want to wait until “later” to read it. So, the only option I had left was the audiobook. I bought it and I prayed that the narration would be as good as the story, and I was not disappointed in either one! The Gutter Prayer is one of the most creative and most entertaining debut novels I’ve read in a while; and, listening to the audiobook gave me a new respect and outlook on narrators. 

            This novel contains several characters. There are 3 protagonists: Carillon Thay, or Cari, a young woman who lived a nomadic life before becoming a thief for the Guild; Rat, a ghoul who is considered to be of a young age amongst other ghouls; and, Spar, a lifelong member of the Thieves’ Guild, who is also a Stone Man, suffering from a disease that slowly petrifies people. When we first meet this trio, they are breaking into a building to steal some documents as appointed by Heinreil, the Guild’s leader. After the job goes awry, we meet: Jere: a thief-taker (a.k.a. bounty hunter) who has a borderline obsession with the trio; Professor Ongent and his son, Miren, scholars with their own baggage and piqued interest in Cari; Eladora Duttin, Cari’s cousin whom she has not seen since they were children; and, Aleena, a woman with unusual ties to Cari. This motley band of characters are about to become acquainted with each other whether or not they want to be. All of the characters are rounded and complex and have down-to-Earth concerns, secrets, and ambitions. At first, readers assume these characters are static and are expected to adhere to the tropes, but the complexity and the connection these characters have demonstrate how each of them develop throughout the novel. 

            The plot of The Gutter Prayer is extremely intriguing: 3 thieves are betrayed by their leader, and as they plot their revenge they uncover not only political conspiracies, but also an ongoing war amongst gods, mages, and alchemists. All the while, Cari, Rat and Spar are linked to this war whether or not they want to be. However, if they want a chance at vengeance, then they must stop Armageddon from happening. Of course, this is easier said than done, but they are not alone. The subplots are interconnected with the plot. First, there are Cari and Eladora. Most of their relatives were killed in a massacre, in which neither Cari, nor Eladora were present. Cari ran away from home and became a thief, and Eladora settled in Guerdon to distance herself from her religious zealot mother. Professor Ongent and Miren take interests in them, but Cari can’t shake the feeling that the Professor has ulterior motives. Next, Spar struggles with the disease that will kill him eventually. At the same time, he knows it’s time to fight Heinreil in order to become the Head of the Thieves’ Guild. This is one of two promises Spar makes to Cari; the second one involves getting back an amulet Heinreil took from Cari. Last, Rat, the ghoul who spends as much time underground as he does above it, is very knowledgeable about the ongoing war between the gods and all of the mages. What the others don’t know is that Rat and the other ghouls have a role to play in the war as well. All of these subplots are necessary for the plot to go at an appropriate rate. This is because, as the plot continues, readers learn the hows and the whys all of these characters remain motivated to stop the mages from bringing destruction to the world. 

            The narrative follows a chronological sequence of events that are told from multiple points-of-view. From the botched robbery to the motives of all of the characters, the readers learn everything that is happening and why from all of the locations the characters find themselves in. Usually, in narratives like these, it is difficult to determine which of the characters are reliable. However, due to each of the protagonists’ stream-of-consciousness—which include flashbacks of important moments in their lives—readers are able to follow the narrative easily. In other words, readers learn where each protagonist is coming from and are able to understand them a lot more. 

            The style Gareth Hanrahan uses is very interesting, and it brings out the grimdark aspect within the fantasy. The author created a world where ghouls are NOT the threat, but mages, saints, and wax figures are working to prompt Armageddon. In addition, the use of word choice and figurative language—especially when it comes to describing bells and medallions—clues readers in as to what they should pay attention to. The mood of The Gutter Prayer is preventing the coming of the end of the world and the lengths people go to either to invoke it, or to prevent it. No one survives the coming or the prevention of the end-of-the-world unscathed, so the mood here would be the tension of the dilemma. And, while the author did this unknowingly (I asked him about it on social media), a lot of the action occurs on “Desiderata Street.” Anyone who is familiar with the poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, knows that it is a reminder to individuals to strive for high ideals and to respect others the way they want to be treated. This is the tone of the novel, and this “way of life,” is the philosophy (remember “Philosopher’s Street”?) which, is reflected in one of the protagonists. Yes, it sounds cliché, but the way this is used within the author’s style of writing doesn’t feel that way at all. 

            The appeal surrounding The Gutter Prayer have been beyond positive. While it’s obvious that grimdark fans will enjoy this book the most, this should NOT be missed by other fantasy fans and readers! This debut—yes, remember debut—novel is already considered to be one of the “Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books of 2019” by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Social media fandoms kept raving about this book to the point where I knew I had to find a way to read it. So, I bought the audiobook. The narrator, John Banks, was perfect for voicing this book. The way he used his voice to convey each character and to describe the setting the way he did matched the story perfectly. I felt that John Banks’ narration embellished the story. And, while I hope to read The Shadow Saint, the upcoming sequel to The Gutter Prayer (to be released on January 9, 2020), I wouldn’t mind if John Banks narrated that book and any other ones in the series as well. It did not feel like I was listening to 17 hours of a novel, it felt like I was there!

            The Gutter Prayer is a striking addition to the fantasy genre. It’s dark and twisted story will remind readers that fantasy is more than “knights in shining armor arriving to save the world.” The fact that it is a debut novel will leave fans craving for more from Gareth Hanrahan. If you’re a fan of fantasy and you want something both new and different, then look no further. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Dragon Republic”

The Poppy War: #2: The Dragon Republic

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: August 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Grimdark, Folklore, Military 

WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers from both The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. You have been warned. 

            She didn’t care about anyone’s visions for the future. She’d stopped wanting to be great, to carve out her place in history, a long time ago. She’d since learned the cost, (Chapter 6).

            Books about war—whether or not it’s fiction or non-fiction—attempts to include the horrors it brings along with it. In recent years, more fiction stories have included the “realities” of war as opposed to the “glories” of it, which usually make their way into the narratives. R.F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War, re-establishes the “cost of war” and its aftermath in the sequel, The Dragon Republic.

            Runin “Rin” Fang is (still) reeling from her actions, which led to the end of the Third Poppy War and victory for the Empire. However, the victory has left Rin feeling hollow due to the deaths of her friends, her teachers, and her comrades. Everything she’d witnessed throughout the war: death, rape, starvation, mutilation, her lack of control as a shaman over a goddess, her addiction to opium, and the betrayal she and her Unit suffered towards the end of the war has left Rin in a depressive state of mind. As a soldier, Rin believes her only purpose lies in seeking revenge against those who betrayed her and the other denizens of the Empire. Lacking support, resources, and leadership skills, Rin leads the 13th Division to fight their remaining enemies. However, Rin and her soldiers are approached by Yin Vaisra—the Dragon Warlord, the Head of the House of Yin, and the father of one of her Sinegard classmates—and, he has a proposition for her: join up with him to form a “democratic” Republic amongst the now disbanded 12 Provinces and he will assist her with her vengeance. Rin—suspecting hidden motives and desiring to remain a soldier—agrees to the Dragon Warlord’s terms. As Rin works with her Unit and the Dragon Province, she is reunited with her former classmates who make their own decisions regarding the civil war that has broken out between the Empire and the Dragon Republic. This time, she has to determine her worth within this latest conflict. In order to do this, Rin develops from soldier to puppet to commander; it is a rough, but essential growth for Rin!

            Just like The Poppy WarThe Dragon Republic has three parts: the aftermath of war, the beginning of a civil war, and the fallout as a result of the civil war. Part I focuses on the Aftermath of the Third Poppy War, especially how the survivors—both military and civilian—are dealing with the damage that remains. Rin struggles with keeping her unit alive while avoiding the troops who would capture Rin in order to collect the bounty on her head. She makes a deal with the Dragon Warlord not only to achieve her goal of revenge and to have access of supplies for her troops, but also to maintain her purpose of being a soldier. All Rin knows is warfare and she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. She’s not alone in this because her friends and her comrades feel the same way. 

            Part II is the campaign launched by the Dragon Province. The mission: either to parlay, or to destroy the other 11 Provinces. The choice lies between siding with the Dragon Warlord or fighting against him. The reality of war is presented to readers again as war tactics, war strategy, and death becomes part of the plot. Decisions are the difference between life and death, and death always seems to prevail. Meanwhile, Rin is suffering from her lost abilities as a shaman and from the humiliating “testing” done to her by the Hesperians—an advanced civilization who promises to ally themselves with the Dragon Province towards the goal of a united republic with the promise of weapons as long as they: win the civil war, allow missionaries to assist with the refugees, and to “study” Rin. Rin has flashbacks to the same experiments done to her and Altan by the Mugenese and begins to wonder whether or not if more than her self-worth is on the line. At the same time, Rin learns how the Empress became so powerful and how the damage she inflicted on Rin can be skirted. For that to happen, Rin must learn more about the powers of a shaman. To do that she’ll have to learn from those who taught Jiang, her former Master of Lore. These two subplots are necessary for both the plot development, and the character development, especially Rin’s. 

            Part III unveils all of the revelations and the intentions of all of the characters. Everyone is involved with another oncoming war whether or not they want to be. The Empire and the Hinterlanders are on the brink of another civil war, and Rin and her Unit must decide who they are going to fight for when the war begins. Even Rin has intentions for this war, especially after she learns the truth about the Dragon Province, the Empress, and their “allies.” Amongst the death and the reunions Rin must determine if she is a soldier or a shaman. 

            Once again, the narrative is in 1stperson and stream-of-consciousness. With the exception of the Prologue, readers follow Rin’s experiences during the aftermath of the Third Poppy War. All of Rin’s thoughts and traumas are witnessed by both readers and other characters. It seems during the postbellum everyone sees Rin as a solder without purpose. She’s a terrible leader and her mistakes puts others in danger. Yet, she wants peace and prosperity (and revenge) just like the other survivors of the war. The scenes involving war, refugees, and previous events and memories are told in real time, so readers experience the anticipation, the suffering, and the confusion all of the characters experience. While it is long, the pacing of the narrative is appropriate for this military fantasy novel.    

            The style Kuang uses in The Dragon Republic is both similar and different from The Poppy Way. The conflict and the aftermath of war—based on the conflicts stirring in several countries before the beginning of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II—is found throughout the pages within this novel. The difference, or better yet the addition to the conflict, is the notion of imperialism. It is obvious that the Dragon Province is attempting to do this, but they are not the only ones fighting for control of a weaken empire. The mood of The Dragon Republic is death and suffering; just because (one) war is over doesn’t mean everything will get better soon. The tone in this novel is not only about the cost of war, but also about the price one is willing to pay for power. There are no innocent people left alive in this story. 

            The appeal surrounding The Dragon Republic have been positive. Fans of The Poppy War, other military fiction, and grimdark will enjoy this sequel. As the world expands, so does the world-building, which is found in the characters and the weapons, which are based on military history and Chinese culture and folklore. It must be mentioned that anyone who couldn’t finish The Poppy War and/or are triggered by real life acts of violence should NOT read this book! While not all readers are into military literature, actual events of war, such as rape, is mentioned in this novel. Otherwise, expect another well-written story by R.F. Kuang. 

            The Dragon Republic is an amazing sequel. The story picks up where The Poppy War left off and it is both creative and realistic for the type of grimdark and military fantasy the author is telling the readers. Parts of the plot and the narrative can drag on at times, but they are necessary for the story the author is telling everyone. I can’t wait for the next book, even though I must. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

Why You Need to Read: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.