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)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “Holy Sister”

Book of the Ancestor: Book Three: Holy Sister

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: April 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Trilogy

            Lessons were over. The closed world of the convent was about to be broken open. The endgame had arrived, (Chapter 9). 

            Any literary series—whether or not they’re duologies, trilogies, quartets, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 15 books—follow similar formats in order to bring the story to a close. In many cases, the ending has a “good” ending for the remaining characters—and the dedicated readers. And yet, there are times when a “believable” ending is what is required for certain stories to have appropriate resolutions for everyone. Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence provides a “believable,” yet satisfying ending for the characters and the readers alike. All of the characters have an ending. 

            Nona Grey—our protagonist—is now around 19 years-old and is preparing for her examinations in Holy Class in order to become a nun at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. A lot has happened since the events in Grey Sister including: the escape from Sherzal’s Palace, the war that’s occurring on two fronts in Abeth, and Nona’s growth spurt. Through it all, Nona not only has to prepare for war (which, she is more than ready for), but also has to keep the promises she made to her friends and to her mentors. Nona matures throughout this novel as well. She is about to leave her teenaged years (but, NOT her adolescence) and she is making choices that will have a long-term effect on not just herself but everyone else, similar to Abbess Glass’ choices. At the same time, readers and Nona learn more about Zole (finally) and her ambitions. Zole is an ice-triber who was “found” be Sherzal and educated by her before attending Sweet Mercy. She was declared to be the “Chosen One” by Sherzal (and by Sister Wheel) at the time. While Zole did prove to be a 4-blood and very powerful, she never said she had plans to remain at Sweet Mercy beyond her education. Through Nona, we learn about Zole, her ambitions, and her culture. Zole does call herself Nona’s friend and she proves that to her over and over again. Both girls learn from each other and grow in both their powers, and their character. By the time the friends go their separate ways, we learn more about Zole and Nona, their roles in the prophecy, and their ambitions for themselves and all of Abeth. 

            There are 2 plots in Holy Sister. The first, Nona, the nuns and her friends—the other novices and her “cage mates”—are preparing to fight in the war that is moving closer and closer towards them. The second, follows Nona and Zole as they continue their escape from Sherzal’s Palace, with the Noi-Guin shipheart, immediately after the events of Grey Sister 3 years earlier. While in Holy Class, Nona gathers her friends in order to steal a book containing secrets about the 4 shiphearts, the Ark, and the prophecy of the “Chosen One.” However, the novices are not alone in seeking this book and the information within it. In addition, neither Nona, nor readers have forgotten about Sherzal, Lano Tacsis, Joeli Namsis, the Noi-Guin, Yisht, and Queen Adoma. Once again, grudges and ambitions take precedence over the problems at hand. The question is, who will be the victor as the war rages around them? Meanwhile, 3 years prior, Nona and Zole are leading the Noi-Guin away from the others who survived the assault on Sherzal’s Palace. With the Noi-Guin shipheart in their possession, the “Argatha” and her “Shield” make their way towards the Ice—where the ice-tribers, including Zole, reside. Throughout the escape, Nona learns about Zole, the ice tribes, and the shiphearts. Nona learns where Zole fits into everything that has happened at Sweet Mercy, and the power of the shiphearts. These two plots present the growth of the characters and the on goings in Abeth. At the same time, there are two subplots. One is Abbess Glass’ continued influence and plans for the endgame; two is the prophecy of the “Chosen One” and its interpretation and its (true) meaning. Both plots and both subplots converge into this final moment in Nona’s education. Everything fits together as the plot hits the climax and moves towards the resolution. Everything moves at an appropriate rate and all is revealed in due time. 

            The narrative is limited omniscient narration—only from Nona’s point-of-view—with a sequence that moves from “Present Day” to “3 Years Earlier.” Nona Grey is out reliable narrator as she continues on her journey to fulfill her role in the war (and in the prophecy). Her stream-of-consciousness goes from the war to the escape (which, is told in present tense) and her powers determine where and what Nona witnesses and experiences. At first, readers will wonder as to why the story is being told from one point in time to another one, but what Nona experiences in both narratives determine her actions as the war reaches its climax. Once this is realized, then the narrative can be followed easily. 

            The style Mark Lawrence uses changes slightly from what readers have gotten used to, but it remains relevant to the story he is telling. The prophecy and its interpretation and its meaning continues, but the significance and the importance of playing the endgame for the long run is essential in this story as well. Readers already know that the prophecy will come to pass in Holy Sister, but how will it affect the other characters? The author reminds his readers that prophecies and war focus on one event in particular, while ambitions last beyond the short term. Behind the frontlines, each character is thinking about what they will do if they survive the war and whether or not the prophecy comes to pass. The mood is war and what it brings with it; the tone is the choices individuals make as a result of war. And, the choices are not always for the good of all of the denizens. Power determines the victor in most wars, but once the war is over, what happens next? This is the importance of the endgame. Planning before and during should being a reasonable after in the long run. 

            The appeal of Holy Sister matches those in the rest of the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, positive and satisfying. Mark Lawrence has delivered a trilogy with magic, history and action alongside strong, yet flawed female characters. This series is an amazing addition to the fantasy genre, and Nona Grey is right alongside Alanna of Trebond and Lyra Belacqua as resilient and powerful female characters who proved themselves against all perceived notions against them. The popularity of this series has given readers a surprise from the author. Readers will get the chance to return to Abeth when The Girl and the Stars, the first book in the Book of the Ice is released in April 2020. 

            Holy Sister is satisfying end to the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. Both the plot and the characters are given reasonable and believable ends to their stories. The pacing and the world-building provide answers to the questions the characters and the readers had previously. Fans of fantasy and grimdark will enjoy the conclusion to this series. Mark Lawrence presents another brilliant series. 

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

Why You Need to Read: “Grey Sister”

Book of the Ancestor: Book Two: Grey Sister

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: April 3, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Sequel

            “You’re powerful Nona, and you’ve come into your power at an early age. The understanding that power corrupts is an idea older than the language we repeat it in. All of us in positions that afford authority over others are susceptible, be we high priests, prime instigators, even abbesses.”

            “Or emperors,” Nona said.

            The abbess winced. “Some truths are better left implied, dear,” (Chapter 17).

            Sequels and other follow ups to their predecessors work well when the events that occurred beforehand are addressed AND the action picks up where it left off. In addition, both the plot development and the character development must continue to show growth in order for the story to remain realistic, and to keep the attention of the reader(s). Mark Lawrence achieves all of this in Grey Sister, the Second Book of the Ancestor.

            The second book in the trilogy has two protagonists: Nona Grey, who is now around 14 years-old and just reached Mystic Class; and Abbess Glass, the Reverend Mother and Headmistress at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. From these protagonists, readers are able to gain knowledge of the on goings of everything happening at the Convent. Nona is coming into her powers and her abilities and is dealing with the consequences of her actions from her time in Grey Class. At the same time, Abbess Glass continues her task of running the Convent and continuing her task of exposing corruption inside and outside of the Convent. More is at stake for both female protagonists as both the Emperor and the Inquisition continue to meddle in the affairs of the Church. All of the other novices: Ara, Darla, Ruli, Jula, and Zole, and the nuns: Wheel, Apple, Kettle, Pan, Rose, Tallow, and Rail know that more is happening outside of the Convent than the Emperor is willing to admit. And, once again, Nona meets up with a few of her former “cage mates,” who have grown into their abilities as well. Everyone is preparing for a war that is inevitable. Nona must endure the obstacles and the hardships in order to graduate from Mystic Class. Abbess Glass must use all of her wisdom and her connections to keep everyone safe, including the “Chosen One” and her “Shield.”

            The plot for Grey Sister is a continuation from Red Sister. Nona and her friends and classmates continue with their classes and the nuns continue their work inside and outside of the Convent. All of this occurs after the betrayals and the heartbreaks from the last two years. These events prompt the identity of the “Chosen One” to be revealed, which brings a motley crowd of zealots and doubters alike. At the same time, neither the noble families, nor the nuns have forgotten the efforts of one noble family’s continued plans to kill Nona. Nona is struggling with her classes due to the long-term “consequence” of the attack on her life. Through it all, Nona grows stronger and more powerful to the delight of her peers and to the horror of her enemies. If Nona wishes to remain at the Convent of Sweet Mercy and to stay alive, then she must find a way to navigate herself through her trials. The subplot of the “Chosen One” is growing and merging into the plot of Nona’s education and the significance of the 4 tribes that traveled to Abeth.

            Once again, the narrative is limited omniscient narration, meaning the readers and the protagonists know what is being experienced at that moment through the character’s point-of-view. Unlike Red Sister, the narrative in Grey Sister is told in real-time through the P.O.V.s of both Nona and Abbess Glass. Thus, these stream-of-consciousness narrations are reliable and can be followed by readers easily. It should be mentioned that the present narration of Grey Sister starts with Chapter 2. Chapter 1 picks up with the cliffhanger from Red Sister, and the Prologue provides a continuation of the action first introduced in the Prologue in Red Sister. Since Grey Sister’s narration is told in the present, any events of the past that is mentioned proves to be a revelation to both the characters and the readers. This is because what gets revealed demonstrates that everything that is, has been, and will continue to happen is bigger and more grievous than anyone at the Convent of Sweet Mercy could imagine. 

            The style Mark Lawrence uses in Grey Sister is a continuation of how prophecy is exploited through means of distraction. Those involved directly with the prophecy want nothing more than to be left alone and to live their lives as “normal” individuals. Some hopefuls wish for the “divine” powers of the “Chosen One” to work miracles for them only to be left disappointed with this notion. Then, there are those who use the prophecy as a way to fulfill their agendas, typically political ones. And, if the prophecy of the “Chosen One” is a distraction, then the political agendas of several noble families, including the Royal Family, serves as the knowledge that no one wants to admit is the issue: war is coming. In other words, religion is exploited in order to distract everyone from the politics of society. This is the mood found within Grey Sister; and, the tone is how the truth—surrounding both religion and politics—is revealed and the reactions and the consequences of it. There are neither winners, nor losers, yet everyone continues to believe whatever they want to believe in. 

            The appeal of Grey Sister is as positive as Red Sister. Fans of the first book had just as many praises for its sequel. This is because the sequel continues to build and to develop the characters, the plot, the world-building, and the action. Not only will readers want to re-read this book (to search for clues and Easter Eggs), but also to continue recommending this series to other readers, all while waiting to read Holy Sister, the third and final book in the series. 

            Grey Sister is an amazing sequel to Red Sister. This is because there is an expansion of the world and further development of both the plot and the characters. At the same time, the events and the revelations from the first book play a critical role that cannot be overlooked. The story is as immersive as the action is entertaining. Mark Lawrence’s novel is a must-read for fans of both fantasy and grimdark.

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

Three Topics Surrounding the Black Community that are Subtle and Profound in “Black Panther”

(If you have neither seen, nor read Black Panther, then please be aware of spoilers!)

Black Panther is the latest Marvel (and Disney) feature film in which, King T’Challa returns to his home, Wakanda, in order to be anointed king and establish his rule. In addition, he has to come to terms with a changing society, a villain from the past, and a contender for the throne. And, while this is not the first feature film about a “Black” superhero—check out the Blade Trilogy—it does include many hidden references that Black people, in the United States and in the rest of the world, are familiar with as part of their heritage. And, no, I’m not referring to the scene with the wig.

First, there is the opening scene, which states, “1992 Oakland.” Without spoiling this scene, it is important to focus on its setting. Anyone who remembers 1992, remembers the L.A. Riots that occurred as a result of the Verdict in the Rodney King Trial. Southern California had several racial issues that were a build up of tensions between the Black community and the Los Angeles Police Department, the Black community and the Asian store owners, and the Drug Wars. These tensions and incidents have been discussed in documentaries and in the biopic, Straight Outta Compton.

In addition, it is important to know that societal improvement has been slow during the past 25 years. Fruitvale Station is about a Black man who is shot and killed by a White Police Officer. The movie is based on real life events following the murder of Oscar Grant. Interestingly, Michael B. Jordan stars in this movie, which is directed by Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther. The fact that Erik Killmonger was raised in that environment during that moment in American history is essential to both his character and his personality.

Second, there is the following scene, in which T’Challa “rescues” Nakia from bandits. It turns out that these bandits are men from the terrorist group, Boko Haram. Boko Haram—“Western education is a sin”—is a terrorist group who, similar to the Taliban, want to return their society to “earlier” Muslim practices. Unfortunately, the common misconception of this belief is the objection of females. Boko Haram believes that females should NOT be educated and independent of males; however, they believe that Western culture is responsible for this “risk.” Hundreds of girls have been abducted from their schools, held captive (at gunpoint), and forced to marry members of the terrorist group. Ironically, when the movie premiered, Boko Haram struck again and abducted over 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Nigeria. For some reason, neither the United Nations, nor the world leaders have done anything to put an end to this terrorist group. Whether or not they have been working on a solution without the public’s knowledge is undetermined. Yet, it is strange that a fictional country is putting more emphasis on this than the news networks.

Last, is one of the closing scenes in which, Erik is dying and T’Challa allows him to make a final decision. Erik makes his decision saying the following: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ship because they knew death was better than bondage.” The United States, while acknowledging slavery and racism, remains in denial of the treatment of Black Americans during AND after slavery. In biographical and autobiographical accounts, many captives who were brought over as slaves recall the brutal conditions of being confined in the ship’s cargo hold. Amistad, the slave ship in which, an infamous revolt occurred in 1839—watch the 1997 film by Steven Spielberg—the captives recounted the “treatment” of “sick” slaves…they were chained together and thrown overboard to drown. In addition, when the crew made sexual advances towards the captives, or if some of the captives had free range of the ship, then those captives would jump overboard rather than suffer bondage. The statement made by Erik Killmonger displays his American upbringing and knowledge surrounding slavery and colonialism.

Now, what do all of those scenes mean? While Black Panther is a “stand alone” film amongst the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is one of the best MCU films, currently. Yet, the movie took the time to further its impact on the targeted audience. It’s a shame that these references are lost amongst everyone else. At the same time, do Black Americans remember how dangerous Boko Haram is?