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: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: September 10, 2019

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

            I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way, (1, The Blue Door). 

            Portal fantasies are one of the many subgenres in fantasy fiction, going back to the emergence of the genre. Popular portal fantasies include: C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and—more recently—the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Academic scholar Farah Mendlesohn defines portal fantasy as, “a fantastic world entered through a portal,” (xix). Note how the definition does NOT state that it has to be “our” world. Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and recent Hugo Award recipient for Best Short Story—“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”—reminds readers that portal fantasies can lead from one world to our world (planet: Earth, galaxy: Milky Way).  

            January Scaller is our protagonist. She tells her story of growing up in Vermont at the start of the twentieth century. January is the ward of Mr. William Cornelius Locke, a billionaire and an archaeologist. Her mother is deceased and her father, Julian Scaller, is a scholar who is employed by Mr. Locke to search for and to collect artifacts for him. Throughout her childhood, she’s kept under Mr. Locke’s watchful eye with only her childhood friend, Samuel Zappia; her father’s appointed guardian for her, Jane Irimu; and, her dog, Sindbad. January doesn’t know much of what is happening around her, until the day before her 17th birthday when she finds a leather-bound book titled: The Ten Thousand Doors. That book introduces January (and readers) to Adelaide Lee Larson—a woman born during the Reconstruction Era—and, to Yule Ian Scholar—a man from the City of Nin in the year 6908, who is the author of the book January finds—and their encounters with Doors and each other. Both Adelaide and Yule Ian have different experiences surrounding Doors, and January—who shares the same curiosity as them—learns more about these other worlds through them. However, this book reveals the truth of her father’s “work” as well as Mr. Locke’s “intentions” for her. From there, January discovers and uses this information to break away from her guardians and to repair the damage that’s been stricken to her loved ones. January’s coming-of-age story stands out more than other ones I’ve read recently; and, I couldn’t stop learning along with her. 

            The plot in the novel surrounds January Scaller’s unique upbringing. Because her father travels around the world while working for Mr. Locke, January was always left behind. And yet, January had tutors and would travel to places around the world with Mr. Locke; not to mention, Mr. Locke disapproved of January’s companions. It’s as if Mr. Locke is afraid to have January out of his sight. Throughout her childhood, January is Mr. Locke’s “good girl,” but longs for her father’s affections. This comes to an end when 3 events happen around and on January’s 17th birthday: her father disappears, she finds The Ten Thousand Doors, and she learns of Mr. Locke’s plans for her life. From there, January must find a way to escape her guardians and discover the truth surrounding Doors and her father’s connection to them. There are 2 subplots in this novel. First, is the story of Adelaide and Yule Ian and their discoveries about Doors and other worlds. Second, is the way January, Samuel, and Jane survive in a society that is dominated by wealthy, Caucasian males who do all they can to control other people. The subplots are intertwined with the plot, and everything comes together, slowly; yet, the pace of the development fits the story the author is telling. 

            The narrative in The Ten Thousand Doors of January consist of 3 different points-of-view: January Scaller, Adelaide Lee Larson, and Yule Ian Scholar. The entire novel—except for the Epilogue—is told in flashback. January’s narrative is told in the past tense in stream-of-consciousness, Adelaide’s narrative is written as a biography, and Yule Ian’s narrative is written as a journal. The sequence of these narratives takes some getting used to but, readers will be able to follow along after the first few chapters. Readers are led to believe that all of the narrators are reliable because the story is told from their P.O.V.s. 

            The way Alix E. Harrow tells her story is a combination of “tradition” with allusion alongside history. In the “tradition” of portal fantasy, “‘the journey’ serves to divorce the protagonists from the world,” (Mendlesohn 7). In other words, the protagonist must separate themselves from their “home” world and travel to another world. In this novel, several worlds are mentioned and traveled to, but there is a strong hint (the title) that there are a lot more. In terms of allusion, the names January and Sindbad, Locke and Scholar are not given by accident. These names serve as epithets to the story being told. The mood is oppression and the tone is escapism. In the midst of the novel is the setting. January turns 17 in 1911. During this time, racism, sexism, and imperialism were practiced throughout the world. January, Julian, Samuel, and Jane are victims of these societal practices. The author uses our history to explain why some individuals would desire either to leave, or to travel to our world. If someone who was suffering under the societal hierarchy was given a chance to live elsewhere, then who is to say that they shouldn’t take the opportunity? The author wants readers to question the existence of other worlds. 

            This novel will appeal to fans of fantasy, especially portal fantasies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a reminder that adults can travel to other worlds as well as children. This is a standalone novel, so there is a chance that it could fall behind in the popularity of similar books that are in a series. Yet, because this novel explains the concept of other worlds in existence (not just one), I believe this novel will be read and enjoyed by many readers. Plus, the author just won a Hugo, so I doubt this book will ever fade from popularity. 

            The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a beautiful debut novel about other worlds, love, and sacrifice. It does take a while for the story to pick up, but once it does, readers will learn about other and new worlds that never crossed their minds. The protagonist grows from a suppressed and isolated individual to a world trotter makes for a believable, yet traumatic, bildungsroman story. Alix E. Harrow is an author with more worlds to present to readers, and I can’t wait to learn about all ten thousand of them!

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

This is because Alix E. Harrow said I had “neat” handwriting.

                                                            List of Works Cited

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Why You Need to Read: “Darkdawn”

The Nevernight Chronicle: #3: Darkdawn

By: Jay Kristoff

Published: September 3, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Historical Fantasy, Folklore

NOTE: This review contains spoilers from both Nevernight and Godsgrave.

            Goddess, if only we’d known what she’d become…(Chapter 33, Wellspring). 

            Darkdawn is the stunning conclusion to The Nevernight Chronicle. Jay Kristoff gives his readers a blood-soaked conclusion to his antiheroine that rivals “The Bride” from Kill Bill and Kratos from God of War. Mia Corvere and her vengeance concludes in Darkdawn, and the author delivers on everything he promised his readers and gives them even more.

            Mia Corvere has transformed from an assassin of the Red Church to a gladiator of the Falcons of Remus to the most infamous murderer in the Itreyan Republic. While she was killing her family’s enemies, she made a startling discovery and acted without thinking. Her brother, Jonnen, has been alive the entire time and has been raised as Consul Julius Scaeva’s son. More about Scaeva’s deception is revealed to Mia and she realizes that her identity was a lie as well. As she comes to terms with this new information, Mia learns that she has been chosen to “seek the Crown of the Moon.” It turns out the gods and the goddesses of the Itreyan Republic are as real as the magic in that world. Mia’s power of a darkin is strongest during Nevernight—which, is coming again soon—and, when the Mother Goddess—Niah, the Maw, the Mother of Night, and Our Lady of Blessed Murder—is strong enough to get her vengeance on Aa—the Father of Light, the Everseeing—her husband. Mia is powerful enough to assist the Maw with her path for revenge. However, Mia has accomplished her tasks and wishes to put as much distance between herself and the Itreyan Republic as possible. But first, Mia has to complete purging the Red Church who has sent ALL of their assassins after her. Meanwhile, Mercurio—Mia’s mentor and foster father—is a captive in the Red Church to use as bait to lure Mia Corvere to them. At the same time, Mercurio learns of the role he’s to play in the Mother’s plan, and it’s as shocking to the readers as it is to him! Throughout the story, we see Mia being split between keeping her brother and her friends safe and killing Consul Scaeva once and for all and following the path the Mother has laid before her. Mia deals with all of these revelations the only way an 18-year-old can…by lashing out; and, Mia’s method of lashing out involves killing a lot of people. Mia is now the most lethal assassin in the history of the Itreyan Republic and the true faith of the Maw expects Mia to fulfill her final task. Will Mia accept the task of the Mother? 

            The plot in Darkdawn is the conclusion to Mia’s life. Readers have known since Nevernight that Mia Corvere would die. The question was how and why. Mia’s quest for revenge now includes the Red Church and anyone Consul Scaeva sends after her. On top of that the Mother (darkness) and the Father (sunlight) are preparing to meet each other and to end their “spousal disagreement.” Mia has to battle gods and goddesses at the same time she is battling mortals. The plot develops as Mia and Mercurio learn more about the history of the Red Church and the darkin. As for the history of the gods and the goddesses, all of those footnotes throughout the trilogy was information as to what would occur eventually. The immortals—like all mythologies—have foresaw their Ragnarök and Mia is to play a very critical role in the end of the Itreyan Republic. Will the gods allow Mia to defeat them? Along with this subplot is the subplot of Mia’s reunion with Jonnen and the relationship she struggles to build with him. These subplots are crucial to the conclusion of The Nevernight Chronicle and they take over the plot of Darkdawn as the story continues. The plot starts with and ends with Mia Corvere. 

            The narrative in Darkdawn is a continuation of Nevernight and Godsgrave until the final part of Darkdawn (Book 4, The Ashes of Empires). From there, the story seems to follow a stream-of-consciousness in the present tense, until it shifts back to the 3rd limited point-of-view. This narration allows readers to follow the actions of Mia, Ashlinn, Jonnen, Mercurio, and other characters as all is revealed throughout the Itreyan Republic. Mia—even with her darkin abilities—cannot be everywhere at once, so readers get the chance to learn how all of these characters are feeling with their situation and what will come to pass. While readers might not like certain characters, their narratives are objective and essential to the story that is being told. The footnotes remain informative and hilarious but are just as vital to the story as the world-building. Everything converges within the narrative. 

            The style Jay Kristoff uses continues in the final book in this trilogy. The events of the past are told in italics, the darkin’s dialogue are told using various font sizes, and the footnotes continue to explain Itreya’s history and culture. That last part is crucial to the narrative because it can be argued that the history and the culture was the real story being told in The Nevernight Chronicle. For example, the “author” of the entire chronicle is revealed, and once readers get over their shock, they will realize that it makes a lot of sense. On top of that readers are reminded that books still enact a sense of fear whether or not it’s the reader or the people mentioned within it. Jay Kristoff reveals the actual story he is telling in his trilogy, the anger of a goddess and the revenge she is waiting to enact on her husband. Similar to how Mia wants vengeance for her family, Niah wants revenge against Aa. The clues were in the titles: Nevernight, Godsgrave, and Darkdawn. The author wasn’t only telling Mia’s story, but also creating his own mythology about the world he created: the gods and the goddesses, how they created the world, and the religion that came out of it as well. The mood in Darkdawn is the coming end of an empire, a cult and its followers, and the protagonist. Readers are familiar with the saying, “tear it all down and begin anew.” Usually this statement comes out of the mouth of a madman; however, in the case of the Itreyan Republic—similar to the Roman Empire—there is so much corruption and greed that the end was going to happen sooner or later (I’m not a historian). The tone of this novel follows the idiom: “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.” The actions of Mia and Jonnen’s parents are reaped by the siblings. At the same time, the actions of the gods affect the mortals who worship them. And yet, the same emotions are felt by mortals and by immortals alike. 

            The appeal surrounding Darkdawn will be a positive one. I received an ARC of this book and Jay Kristoff gives a satisfying ending to this creative and bloody trilogy. Fans of fantasy and grimdark will enjoy this story. Readers of historical fiction will appreciate the parallels (and the research) to the Roman Empire. And, folklore enthusiasts and experts will love how the author reminds his audience of the source of magic and faith found throughout the trilogy. Darkdawn concludes the way it does as mentioned in the beginning of Nevernight.

            Darkdawn is the action-driven end to a fast-paced trilogy. Mia Corvere’s life story ends as it began, with blood and death. Readers will cringe at the death count, will mourn the characters who die, and won’t be able to stop reading until the end. Fans will complete The Nevernight Chronicle and be more than satisfied with its conclusion. Mia Corvere is one of the best antiheroines I’ve ever read. Thank you Jay Kristoff for sharing her story with us! 

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