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: “The Deep”

The Deep

By: Rivers Solomon; with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            “Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers,” she said. In general, Yetu didn’t tell the Remembrance. She made her people experience it as it happened in the minds of various wajinru who lived it, (Chapter 3). 

            Whether or not the majority of the world wants to admit it, 2019 marks 400 years since the beginning of the African Slave Trade. The first ships holding captive Africans made its voyage to the Americas in order to exploit the resources in those continents. For over 200 years, Africans—men, women and children—were abducted from their homes and families and shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The voyage overseas to the Americas were treacherous due to the conditions abroad the ships and the travel itself. The captives were not only abused, starved and raped, but also were subjected to overcrowded conditions with little to no air circulation. Thus, illness was common throughout these voyages and the ships suffered from the weight of all the people on board. One of the ways the crew resolved the issue of illness and capacity was to throw these terrified people overboard. Even those who weren’t sick (or pregnant) were tied up and thrown into the ocean; and, they were often chained together so none of them could attempt to escape and swim away. Although the imperialist nations continue to gloss over this inhumane era of our history, there is enough testimony and evidence to verify everything about the African Slave Trade as valid. 

            The Deep by Rivers Solomon incorporates this history alongside folklore and culture to tell a story of how and why it is essential to recall history no matter how traumatic it is and to share it with others. At the same time, the idea of maintaining history, culture and identity, and the consequences of those losses are echoed throughout the narrative. In African culture, a community’s historian and storyteller is given the title: griot. The griot is responsible for maintaining all of the stories and the events of that one community. And, it is seen as one of the highest honored positions an individual can train for and be assigned within their community. The practice of there being only one historian and/or griot per group of people is a cautionary tale that will remind readers of The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

            The protagonist is Yetu. She is 35 years-old and she has been her wajinru’s “historian,” or griot, since she was 14. Yetu was chosen to be her people’s historian by the previous one. The historian maintains the entire history of the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”) from when the first babe of the captured Africans were born and survived in the depths of the ocean. Due to the trauma of the first wajinru, one of them is chosen to maintain all of the memories of all of the wajinru so that everyone else can strive and live without those memories weighing them down. Every year, an event known as “The Remembrance” occurs, which involves the historian releasing the memories of the wajinru’s past so they can remember their origins, briefly. Throughout the rest of the year, the historian maintains those memories. Yetu was very young when she was chosen to be the current historian, and she’s found the role to be nothing but a burden. From the perspective of the other wajinru—including Yetu’s mother, Amaba—Yetu neglects some of her responsibilities as historian such as preparing for the Remembrance. What they don’t know is that Yetu holds the memories of ALL of the wajinru—past and present—in her mind, and she remembers EVERYTHING. Most wajinru, including Amaba, forget most things after a short time period. Yetu cannot do that and she often loses herself to the fragments of the memories. After 20 years, Yetu forgets to eat and to sleep, and she’s lost herself to the memories more often than she can remember. Lacking a support system from her people, Yetu performs the Remembrance. However, before she is to reclaim the memories for another year, Yetu flees from the other wajinru and the memories. 

            Once Yetu cannot swim anymore, she finds herself near a small seaside town. There Yetu meets humans who help her survive as she recovers from her flight. She is able to communicate with them because some of the memories of the wajinru are still within her. Yetu befriends Oori, a human who is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her home and killed her entire community. The two females bond over being outcasts and being the historian responsible for ensuring that the history and the legacy of their people do not fade into obscurity, and both women are dealing with their burden differently. Yetu’s mind contains the memories of her tribe, until recently; and, Oori is the last of her people and she doesn’t know what she can do to ensure that her people’s legacy doesn’t become extinct. It is this revelation that makes Yetu aware of how essential her role to her people is and why knowing one’s history, culture and origins is important for survival. From there, Yetu is able to make a compromise between her role and its burden. Then, Yetu recreates the role of historian for posterity. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers experience Yetu’s immaturity and trauma as a historian. It is from Yetu’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness that readers experience Yetu’s moments of post-traumatic stress disorder—flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, withdrawal, etc.,—remind readers that moments of the past are experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yetu is able to accept her role and admit her mistake, and while some readers might wonder whether or not she has grown more as an individual, they need to be reminded that no one recovers from P.T.S.D. overnight. The use of flashbacks enhance the narrative more towards African history and Yetu’s stream-of-consciousness determines the pace of the story and make Yetu out to be a reliable narrator. 

            The style Rivers Solomon uses for The Deep illustrates the balance between the burden and the importance of one’s history and the dangers of limiting that knowledge to one individual. The mood in this novella is the loneliness and the isolation one can feel even if they are surrounded by family and members of their community. The tone in this story is the responsibility of who maintains the history and the culture of one group and why it should be shared and not limited to one individual. Knowing the past is as important as living in the present for the future.

            The Deep will appeal to all fans of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history. Historians will appreciate the incorporation of facts and how events of the past continue to haunt the present. Folklorists will appreciate how storytellers are regarded and admired for their desire and their ability to pass down culture and information for longevity. The hype surrounding this book was huge and that is partly because the audiobook is narrated by Daveed Diggs. The Deep can be reread and included in the speculative fiction canon.  

            The Deep is a heartbreaking story about history, memory and enduring hardship and responsibility. If one has not read any book by the author, then they can and should start with this novella. This story goes to show how some song lyrics, history and desire can come together to tell a believable tale. The Deep will have you believing in mermaids all over again! 

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Kingdom of Copper”

The Daevabad Trilogy #2: The Kingdom of Copper

By: S.A. Chakraborty

Published: February 21, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

            She shook her head. “Whatever the consequences, Dara acted to protect my daughter from a fate I fought for decades. I cannot fault him for that. And if you think Ghassan wasn’t looking for a reason to crack down on the Daevas the instant a Nahid and Afshin strolled through the gates of Daevabad, you clearly do not know him at all.” She gave them another sharp look. “Tearing each other apart is not why we are here,” (4, Dara). 

            As I mentioned in my review of The City of Brass, the first book in The Daevabad Trilogy, this is a series in which the characters and the world are influenced by Middle Eastern history, culture and folklore. Yet, the story of political power, corruption and struggle is a universal theme in stories and an issue within our world. The Kingdom of Copper expands both the influences and the themes in the magical world S.A. Chakraborty presents to us.

            The story takes place 5 years after Dara’s—short for Darayavahoush e-Afshin—death and resurrection, Nahri’s forced marriage to Prince Muntadhir, and Prince Alizayd’s—Muntadhir’s younger brother—exile to Am Gezira for plotting against his father, King Ghassan al Qahtani. Dara has been resurrected by Manizheh, Nahri’s mother—who faked her death in order to protect herself and her family—so that he can assist her in leading a rebellion against King Ghassan for his treachery and in order to reclaim the throne that was held by the Nahids—the ancestors and tribe of Nahri and Manizheh. Nahri is now wife to Muntadhir, the king’s son and heir, is the new Banu Nahid, or royal healer, and is trapped in the gilded cage of the palace with no one she can trust. She uses her healing gifts and her desire to be a physician in order to cope with her current scenario and unwanted status. Prince Ali has settled in a small community in an oasis in Am Gezira away from his father’s assassins and members of his mother’s family (who want him on the throne). During his exile he learns how to control the abilities gifted to him by the marid, water spirits, on the night he slew Dara. All three protagonists are in scenarios based on the poor choices they made 5 years ago. They all have to live with the consequences of their actions and find other methods to achieve their original goals. Dara, Nahri and Ali develop further into maturity and they must find a way to maneuver through the unrest between ruling classes and amongst the six tribes of the djinn. The complexity of their situations mirror the complexity of their characteristics. 

            The plot continues from where The City of Brass left off. King Ghassan continues to subdue his subjects—mostly the shafit (those of mixed human and djinn heritage)—to harsh treatment and brutal punishments for minor offenses. Ghassan believes with Ali exiled for his betrayal, the death of the last of the Afshins (a.k.a. Dara), and his dominance over Nahri and the supporters of the Nahids he’ll remain in control. However, the king’s enemies have learned how to work underground and soon of the king’s subjects will revolt against the descendants of the rebel who overthrew the Nahids from power. This plot was the subplot in the first book, and it proves how relevant it is to this story’s narrative. There are two main subplots. The first regards Dara and his failure to protect Nahri is the latest of his long list of failures. Due to his imprisonment before meeting Nahri, Dara hasn’t had time to deal with the consequences of his actions that led to the death of his family. Not to mention, Dara’s memories are becoming clearer and he’s starting to remember the events that led to his actions from centuries ago, and those memories are causing him to question whether or not his alliance with Manizheh will lead to similar consequences. The second subplot focuses on the concept of identity and what it means for both Nahri and Ali. Nahri knows she is descended from the Nahids, but she’s not sure what that means. She doesn’t trust anyone in Daevabad, so promises of better things to come by the priests and the other healers means nothing to her. At the same time, Nahri stumbles over information as to how and what her ancestors were really like during their reign in Daevabad and what the Daeva priests expect from her. Meanwhile, Ali learns that he has more abilities than the ones “gifted” to him by the marids. Once again, Ali must find a way to keep his family safe while protecting the denizens of Daevabad from his father’s tyranny. These subplots move along with the plot at an appropriate rate providing development of the plot and the characters, and a way to continue the world-building left off in the first book. 

            The narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali. Once again, the P.O.V.s are 3rd person limited narrative; meaning they know only what is happening around them at that moment, which means the narrative is told in real time. Readers are aware of each protagonist’s thoughts thanks to their stream-of-consciousness, and because there are moments when one protagonist knows more than the other two at random intervals. All three protagonists are reliable narrators and they provide readers with everything that is going on with all of the characters—including moments of foreshadowing—which, can be followed easily due to the narrative’s sequence.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses continues from The City of Brass to The Kingdom of Copper. The history and the folklore of the Middle East—during the Ottoman Rule—continues to influence the story, and the themes of tyrannical rule and rebellion and its endless cycle within the story. The mood in this book is one of tension brought on by corruption and mistreatment of people and the fighting amongst the tribes and the growth of that tension. The tone in this story is how someone should react when tensions are to the point where unrest is coming and how someone should prepare themselves for it regardless of how others want them to act. Trusting one’s instincts is the only way someone can hope to survive when unrest is inevitable. 

            The appeal towards The Kingdom of Copper buildup from the first book. Readers and critics alike praised the author for continuing her fantasy story using her method of storytelling, which led to compliments about the story’s structure by a few readers. Now that the stakes have been raised, fans can only hope for more from S.A. Chakraborty. The critical acclaim will keep the book in popularity and in the fantasy canon. And, fans will be eager to read the story’s conclusion in The Empire of Gold when it is released. 

             The Kingdom of Copper is a strong sequel in The Daevabad Trilogy. The pacing of the world-building and the conflicts go at a more appropriate rate this time, and the input of a realm’s forgotten history makes the story more realistic. The complexity of the characters make them all the more tragic, yet lovable. This novel makes the upcoming conclusion to this trilogy to be very promising. 

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