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)!!!

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: Betrayal”

The season finale of Season One begins with both Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel—Lyra’s parents—preparing for what they’ve been planning for since the first episode. The former is planning to kill Lord Asriel under the orders of the Magisterium, and the latter is planning something that involves the aurora—a.k.a. the northern lights—and this involves his strange interest in Roger. 

            Lyra’s reunion and confrontation with her father does not go the way she wants it to go. Lord Asriel admits that he is Lyra’s father, but he’s not going to be the sort of father she wants him to be. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter admits that her abandoning Lyra was a mistake and she’s been trying to rectify it. Lyra goes from being an orphan to knowing she’s an abandoned child, and she doesn’t know how to deal with either the knowledge or the rejection of it. It is Roger who comforts her when she doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings. Roger tells Lyra that they can “pretend to be orphans” again, knowing life for them has changed and things won’t ever be the same. 

            Lord Asriel makes the decision to explain to Lyra the purpose of his research and his reason for him being absent. The discussion of Dust and its origins comes from the novel. The Magisterium believes that Dust is Original Sin and that it begins to affect humans once they start puberty. Lyra begins to understand why the Magisterium conducted the experiments on the missing children, and Lord Asriel explains his beliefs on Dust and his discovery about the aurora and Dust—it can build a bridge between worlds. He asks Lyra if she wants to go with him, but Lyra has already decided to return to Jordan College with Roger. 

            Meanwhile, Lord Carlo Boreal continues his search for the Parrys and the letters. Will is hiding in town knowing that the police are looking for him because of the man he killed. What Will doesn’t know is that the reason he’s being tracked is because Lord Carlo Boreal is using the police to find him. It’s interesting how far the power of the Magisterium stretches across the worlds. Will manages to stay hidden, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before he’s found, and he needs to hide somewhere where no one can find him. 

            Lyra wakes up when the Magisterium has arrived to arrest her father, but her father has already left taking Roger with him to the peak of the mountain. Lyra realizes that her father didn’t need the alethiometer, but Roger. Lord Asriel needed a child whose daemon hasn’t settled yet in order to use the energy from the bond to create a bridge. Similar to how Mrs. Coulter wouldn’t sacrifice Lyra to the intercision, Lord Asriel refused to sacrifice Lyra. This could be viewed as a twisted type of love parents have for their child.  

            Lyra rushes to save Roger. She dodges the Magisterium’s attacks thanks to Iorek Byrinison and the other panserbjørnes; however, not even Iorek can travel across the thin bands of ice. Lyra Silvertongue says goodbye to Iorek not knowing what will happen once she reaches the top. Pantalaimon tells Lyra that Roger is in a cage similar to the one at The Station and Lyra knows what her father plans to do. Unfortunately, she’s too late. Lord Asriel creates the bridge at the cost of the life of his daughter’s best friend. 

            Mrs. Coulter arrives too late as well, but she resists her orders to kill her former lover. Lord Asriel tells her of his plans to end the Magisterium and asks her to join him. It’s a brief, yet strange, reconciliation between Lyra’s parents (in which, Lyra witnesses firsthand in the book). However, Mrs. Coulter rejects Lord Asriel in order to stay with Lyra. Lyra regains consciousness in time to avoid her mother and she goes to say goodbye to Roger. Lyra decides that she needs to find Dust before her father and the Magisterium. At the same time, Will goes to the park, the same one where Lord Carlo Boreal travels from, where he finds a cat that disappears into thin air. Lyra and Will go through the bridges at the same time not knowing where they’ll end up. 

            Betrayal is an appropriate season finale because it wraps up all of the plots throughout the season going back to the events of the first episode. All of the questions asked from that first episode are answered. The deviation from the books works for this episode as well because it fits with the adaptation presented to us by the BBC and HBO. The only question left is “what happens next?” There will be a season two, which will be based on The Subtle Knife. Hopefully, the next season will continue to follow the darker tones left by season one.

My Rating: 9.0 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Fight to the Death”

This episode picks up where the last episode, and the books, left us. Lyra survives her fall from Lee Scoresby’s balloon, only to be captured by the panserbjørne—the name the Ice Bears call themselves in the books (and in the movie)—and brought before King Iofur Raknison. Lyra learns her father is alive, her friends survived the attack on the balloon, and Iorek Byrinison is on his way to rescue her. 

            However, Iorek is in exile and he was the previous king. Lyra uses her cunning, her ability to lie, and the alethiometer in order to trick Iofur Raknison into fighting Iorek Byrinison. This scene is interesting for two reasons. The first is we learn more about Lyra’s character and how she resembles both of her parents—as she is told constantly by other characters—especially, in her drive to succeed. The second is that Iofur Raknison is duped by Lyra—and Mrs. Coulter—because of his desire to behave like a human (this is explored more in the film, and in the books). 

            With the exception of Mrs. Coulter’s role and relationship with Iofur Raknison, everything follows the books from how Lyra tricks Iofur Raknison (which Iorek now calls her Lyra Silvertongue), to the fight between the two panserbjørnes, to the use of bloodmoss (read the books). Iofur Rakinson has been defeated and Iorek Byrinison has reclaimed the throne. Now, Lyra has to travel further North in order to rescue her father before the Magisterium kills him. She leaves with Roger and Iorek. 

            Meanwhile, the plot involving Will Parry catches up to the books—The Subtle Knife—in this episode. Will’s mother is visited again by the man from the Magisterium (his name is Lord Carlo Boreal). She is driven to the edge of a breakdown, and when she refuses to give the man any answers, he allows his daemon to scare her. She meets Will at his school, and he manages to calm his mother down. However, when they return home, they find it’s been broken into and searched. They flee to the home of one of Will’s teachers, but Will returns to the house to retrieve his father’s letters—which is what the Magisterium has been searching for. Will finds the letters as the thieves enter the house. He is able to defend himself, but he kills one of the men. Not knowing what to do, he packs some of his belongings and leaves town, with his father’s letters. 

            The Fight to the Death ends with Lyra arriving where her father is staying. Lord Asriel is NOT pleased to see her and tells her to leave. However, he changes his mind once he sees that she brought her friend, Roger, with her. Lyra is trying to process what just happened. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter barters again with the Magisterium to allow her to speak to Lord Asriel instead of killing him. And, both Lee Scoresby and King Iorek Byrinison prepare to face off against the Magisterium as they make their way North. What is Lord Asriel up to that has everyone scared? There’s one episode left in Season One and we’ll see how this adaptation decides to end.

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10. 

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)!

TV Episode Review: “Deadly Class: The Clampdown”

 Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review. You have been warned. 

            While Kings Dominion investigates the death of another student, the students are placed under lockdown. The lockdown is effective to the point where several of the students are shoved into random dorm rooms instead of their own. This is interesting because viewers see more interaction between the students who are not friendly with one another. At the same time, the cliques from the Pilotepisode is brought back in order to reiterate the reasons why these kids became students at Kings Dominion in the first place. And yes, while some of the students believe Marcus is the center of the conflicts at the school, the teachers and the administration know that Marcus is being labeled as a scapegoat. This is how rumors spread. 

            Marcus gets interrogated by Master Lin and Maria gets interrogated by Master Gao. And, while it is obvious that Master Lin and Master Gao want the same thing—to diffuse a potential race/gang war within the school—their methods demonstrate how these siblings remain at odds with each other. Master Lin believes what he wants to believe, while Master Gao knows the truth, but cannot prove it. Master Lin is able to stop the adults from interfering with the school, but Master Gao believes in “an eye for an eye” philosophy. It makes you wonder what could happen when these siblings work together instead trying to outmaneuver each other.  

Confessions is the theme for The Clampdown. Maria confesses to killing both Chico and Yukio; Marcus confesses to knowing about it; and, Saya confesses that she sees Maria as a friend even with all of the tension breaking out between the Cartel and the Yakuza. And, while it seems that the conflict between the two gangs is over for now, Marcus’ confession to his friends about his past reminds everyone what is really at stake, the existence of Kings Dominion to the outside world. 

In all, The Clampdown presents which of the students are willing to do help themselves versus which students are willing to help each other. It becomes obvious that Marcus trusts his friends more than his roommate and that Maria and Saya trust each other more than their fellow members. Silly as it may sound, this friendship is what will bring about a very entertaining season finale.