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: “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)!