Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

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

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

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

Who or What Is Shireen Baratheon supposed to be?

(Please Note: Spoilers from A Song of Ice and Fire series are found within this essay.)

Most of us has read, heard, or seen a version of The Iliad. The blind poet, Homer, is credited for compiling the epic tale of the Trojan War. The film, Troy (2004), has Achilles played by Brad Pitt, Sean Bean as Odysseus, and Orlando Bloom as Paris. However, like other media adaptations of literary and oral stories, little details are often left out. If one saw Helen of Troy (2003), then he or she would see more of what was part of the story.

Besides the backstory of how Helen became the pawn of the Trojan War, the audience saw more of what was happening within the kingdom of Sparta. For example, both Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra marry brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon respectively. Helen and Menelaus have one daughter, Hermione; and Clytemnestra and Agamemnon have four children. One of who is their daughter, Iphigenia.

Iphigenia was the daughter who was sacrificed by her father in order to appease the goddess Artemis for favorable winds in order to sail to Troy. While it is unclear on the exact age of Iphigenia, the truth remains that the sacrifice brought the Greek Army to Troy. At the same time, Clytemnestra vowed vengeance against her husband for what he did to their daughter. The Trojan War lasted for 9 years with the Greeks sieging and destroying Troy. Helen returned to Sparta with her husband, and Agamemnon returned to Mycenae with Cassandra, the prophetess sister of Paris, as his prize. Soon after, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, killed both Agamemnon and Cassandra as retaliation for Iphigenia’s death.

Shireen Baratheon is the daughter and only child of Stannis Baratheon and Selyse Florent. She almost died from grayscale and it left her disfigured. However, she is often described as being a sweet child. Her parents have renounced their religion of the Faith of the Seven and become worshippers of the Lord of Light, a religion from Essos, whose priestess is Melisandre, who is convinced that Stannis is the prophesized hero, Azor Ahai. While Stannis and Melisandre campaign throughout Westeros, Shireen is left at Dragonstone with her mother; her cousin, Edric Storm (a bastard); and her fool, Patchface.

Stannis’ campaign has led him to use dark magic provided by Melisandre. This magic had killed his brother, Renly; Cortnay Penrose, a guardian of Edric Storm and Renly’s castellan; and, Maester Cressen. However, Stannis believes that the magic has assisted him so far with “removing” his adversaries, and was considering sacrificing his brother’s bastard son until Davos Seaworth, his Hand, smuggled him out of Westeros. This was because Melisandre believed that “king’s blood” would “wake the dragons from stone” which would prove and provide Stannis’ status as King of the Seven Kingdoms.

King Robert Baratheon had sixteen bastard children, most of who were killed on the orders of Queen Cersei Lannister—to hide her infidelities and the parentage of her children. In addition to Edric Storm, only Mya Stone, Gendry, and Bella are what remain of the bastards. However, those who are looking for them do not know where they are in Westeros. So, what does this mean for Stannis and his “blood sacrifice” for dragons?

I believe you see where this is going based on what I started with, but that is because the series author, George R.R. Martin, has admitted that Greek and Roman mythology are huge influences in A Song of Ice and Fire. Additionally, there was some foreshadowing about what might happen to Shireen in A Dance with Dragons. It was when the wildling Val told Jon Snow that Shireen was “unclean” and should be killed due to her grayscale. It was then that Jon Snow observes that Queen Selyse is fond of Shireen, but like her husband, would put their efforts for the crown before their family’s well being if the Melisandre told them to.

The story of Azor Ahai states that when the hero forged his sword for the third time, he drove it into the thing he loved most, his wife, Nissa Nissa, and the sword was named “Lightbringer.” It was then that Azor Ahai was able to defeat the Others, their creatures, and the “Long Night.” Sounds very much like the story of Agamemnon and his daughter, Iphigenia.

Now, Selyse, Shireen, and Melisandre are at Castle Black while Stannis continues his campaign to get support from the Northerners. Between the wildings’ beliefs and Melisandre’s visions, Shireen’s chances for survival are looking grim. Victory for the Baratheons is starting to outweigh rational thinking, and even Melisandre does not understand some of the visions she has been receiving. Melisandre says that “king’s blood” will raise the dragons and give Stannis the power that he needs. All that is left of Stannis’ blood—as far as he knows—is his daughter, Shireen. Does Stannis reflect Agamemnon? Is Shireen supposed to be Iphigenia?

There are two more books and several character plots that are neither complete nor revealed. There is a possibility that Stannis will gain support from the North. There is a possibility that Melisandre is wrong about who the reincarnation of Azor Ahai really is. All the same, no one knows what to expect from a novel written by George R.R. Martin. And yet, I believe that Shireen Baratheon is going to end up becoming a sacrifice for someone whether or not anyone wants to believe otherwise. Remember, the sword is a fake!