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)!!!

Review of Season One of “His Dark Materials”

Season one of His Dark Materials, based on The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman has completed its run on the BBC and on HBO, and they didn’t alter the ending! Overall, season one was a great adaptation to the books and some of the “fillers” worked well for the narrative that was presented to the audience. Readers got to enjoy scenes that were denied to them from the 2007 movie and viewers were able to grasp the demeanor of all of the characters thanks to both the actors’ portrayals of the characters and the “fillers” which were added for additional context. 

            It should be mentioned that the TV mini-series was a better adaptation than the movie, but this is due to the fact that neither the studios, nor the test audience (these are based on rumors, which have circulated over and over again) interfered with the editing of the series. The order of the events presented matched the way they occurred in the books, the “true” ending of season one ended the way it does in the books, and the revelations of what was happening to the missing children weren’t glossed over. Yes, the movie did get a lot of things right, and those were repeated in the series, but the TV series is more in tandem with the books.

            The issues I have with the series so far should be mentioned as well. First, is the aging up of some of the younger characters. Lyra, Roger, and Billy were all close to the age of the characters they portrayed (between 10 and 12 years-old), but Will Parry was aged up to 15 years-old (he’s around 12-13 years-old when readers first meet him). I want to say this was because of the age of the actor who is portraying Will, but it’s difficult to determine whether or not this is the case. Yes, there have been some cases in which the age of the character(s) have been altered due to the actors that play them, but there have been even more examples of when it’s happened because the studio(s) believe it’ll make the narrative “more believable.” If it’s the former, then I have no complaint; but if it’s the latter, then they should stop making it so obvious. 

            Next, were the ways the proximity of daemons were presented to the viewers. While in the books, it is unclear what the actual distance a human can be “away” from their daemon, it is clear that the proximity has to be very close in order for human and daemon to maintain their bond and their lives. However, there are moments when the proximity is unclear and that is due to the way some of daemons are presented. Sometimes they are far enough for the individual not to experience pain, and then they are so far away that you wonder whether or not they could be similar to a witch’s daemon. I hope the network and the studio corrects this misconception for season two because it became very confusing between each episode. 

            Last, was the way Dust is presented throughout the season. The mystery of Dust was portrayed better than the knowledge of it. The explanation provided in the season finale is straight from the books, but the “danger” of someone outside of Jordan College and the Magisterium having knowledge of what Dust is—which, was presented better in the movie—wasn’t demonstrated in the series the way it should have been, in my opinion. Then again, Dust is supposed to be remain a mystery throughout the series until the end. 

            Besides the casting and the special effects, there were several things that I enjoyed about season one from the titles of the episodes—based on chapters in the books—to the way the parental figures were portrayed in the series. Presenting both Mrs. Coulter and Mrs. Parry as “damaged” individuals who try to balance their demeanor with their desire to be mothers to their children was presented extremely well. The issue of succession and power amongst the panserbjørne and the Magisterium—which, are both essential to the plot of the story—were presented (with the details given throughout the books) with the hypocrisy immensely. And, the motives of Lord Asriel and his reasons for doing everything he does comes back full circle. Lord Asriel is what keeps the narrative moving along and the series makes sure that the viewers do not forget it. Yet, it was Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of Mrs. Coulter that grasped the viewers’ attention the most. 

            Overall, season one of His Dark Materials was the adaptation fans of the books waited for patiently, and the wait was worth it. All of the details that were omitted from the 2007 movie were included, the pacing matched the books and were appropriate for a TV mini-series, and the inclusion of source material from other books in the Philip Pullman’s universe—both The Book of Dust and The Subtle Knife—enriched the narrative more than expected and it worked well for the audience, both readers and viewers. Season two was announced by the BBC (with HBO promising to continue showing the series in the U.S.), which is great because this news is what book fans have been waiting for the most! The adaptation of The Subtle Knife will not only continue Lyra’s story, but also continue the narrative from the multiple cliffhangers this time around. Yes, the books should be read, but knowing that the mini-series will continue makes book fans as excited as the viewers more than anyone else can imagine! 

If you want the reviews of each episode, then you can click on each of the episode titles below:

S1, Ep.1: Lyra’s Jordan

S1, Ep. 2: The Idea of North

S1, Ep. 3: The Spies

S1, Ep. 4: Armour

S1, Ep. 5: The Lost Boy

S1, Ep. 6: The Daemon-Cages

S1, Ep. 7: The Fight to the Death

S1, Ep. 8: Betrayal

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10! 

Why You Need to Read: “Spinning Silver”

Spinning Silver

By: Naomi Novik

Published: July 10, 2018

Genre: Fantasy/Folklore/Fairy Tale Retellings

 

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

So we knew that the Staryk had not given us a purse of silver to be kind. I couldn’t think why they had left it, yet there it was on our table, shining like a message we couldn’t understand. And then my mother drew a sharp breath and looked at me and said, low, “They want you to turn it into gold.”

My father sat down at the table and covered his face, but I knew it was my own fault, talking in the deep woods, in a sleigh driving over the snow, about turning silver to gold. The Staryk always wanted gold (Chapter 5).

 

This retelling of Rumpelstiltskin takes place in the same universe as Uprooted (2015)—according to Novik herself—only this time we get a battle between the elements of fire and ice. And no, this will NOT remind you of George R.R. Martin! Once again, we are pulled into a world where magic and talent are desired and have consequences.

The plot is simple: three women from different socioeconomic (and religious) backgrounds are trying to make the best of their current situation and live up to their families’ expectations. At the same time, they and the rest of the kingdom are all trying to avoid any confrontation with the Staryk: magical humanoids with silver hair and silver eyes who have an affinity with ice, snow, and anything related to winter. However, no one can avoid the Staryk or their goal.

The narrative is told from the point-of-view of six characters: Miryem, Wanda, Irina, and three other characters that have close ties to the three female protagonists. This method of storytelling allows for the readers to learn of the characters’ backgrounds and motivations while at the same time, read the events as they occur in real time. Readers not only gain a better understanding of the characters and their predicaments, but also learn of the Staryk’s motivations and ambitions.

The characters are more than what others perceive them to be. First, Miryem takes over her father’s job as a moneylender in order to save her family from poverty and starvation, especially during an unusually long winter. Next, Wanda and her brothers are trying to stave off starvation, too. However, they fear their drunken and abusive father and his ambitions more than hunger. Last, Irina—who knows she’s her father’s unwanted, yet valued child—decides to use her two talents surrounding the predicament of her marriage: intellect and magic. Readers learn about the Staryk, too. This includes their reasons for gathering gold and elongating winter. All of the characters are trying to survive their current situations, to fight a common nemesis, and to hope for a better outcome in their lives.

The style of Novik’s novel is a retelling of the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, told from the viewpoints of six characters. While the Grimm Brothers’ variant of this fairy tale is the one most recognized, it is not the only one. That being said, the familiarity of the older story is in the novel. After all, the title is Spinning Silver. In addition, Naomi Novik returns to the theme of magic and its consequences, which is the same as it was in Uprooted.

The appeal of this novel is deserving of all the hype! Even though Naomi Novik has been writing fantasy for several years—checkout the Temeraire series—Spinning Silver is for fans of Robin McKinley, and for readers who can appreciate a fantasy or a fairy tale with some twists and complexities. If you haven’t already done so, then read Uprooted, too! And, for your information, just because this novel is categorized as “fantasy” and as a “fairy tale retelling” does NOT mean it is categorized as a young adult novel! This novel is for adult readers.

I enjoyed this novel because I was just as immersed in Spinning Silver and I was in other fantasy stories I’ve read beforehand. Since I was already familiar with both Novik’s style, and with the story of Rumpelstiltskin, it was easy for me to get into this novel. I loved the characters, the interactions between the characters, the inclusion of the various backgrounds and cultures, and the uses of magic mentioned throughout the story. I hope you will find it enjoyable, too! I will be re-reading Spinning Silver in the future. All readers need to read this novel!

My final rating: MUST Read It Now!

Choose: A Movie Based on a Book or Your Religious Beliefs

With The Hobbit movie trilogy ending and with one more The Hunger Games movie left to be released, the public awaits the other movies within the same genre (Book to Film): Insurgent, Fifty Shades of Grey, Child 44, etc. (I will discuss comic books and their media adaptations in another post). While movies based on books are nothing new (i.e. The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs), we have been seeing more of them since the turn of the century. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Twilight (it makes me cringe to mention that one) are some of the franchises that were the most successful and saw all of the books in the series adapted into movies.

Children’s books are always popular for media adaptations. And, the same can be said bestselling novels. Fans and audiences of both books and movies are always curious as to how the movie will look and how true to the book the movie will be. This is the main issue people often see in media adaptations, but it is NOT the only one. Recently, there have been complaints as to why there have been series in which there is only one movie, and then the rest of the books in the series do not receive the same translation.

Now, with franchises that have had more than one movie adaptation, audiences are wondering whether or not the movies will ever be completed. The Chronicles of Narnia saw three out of their seven books get translated into movies (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). However, the actors were also signed to doing an adaptation of The Silver Chair; and, as we figured out, the movie never got made.

Ironically, the situation surrounding The Chronicles of Narnia was not just about public and studio interest, but also about the religious overtones found within the remaining novels. The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle all contain allegories and allusions to Christianity. C.S. Lewis, the author of the series, also included some mockery of the Islamic faith in those same novels. Many of us who have read those books as children and/or adolescents did not even notice the insult within the pages. However, as adults you tend to look at what is written into children’s books more intensely. I will admit that it was a pastor I know who pointed out to me what was really taking place in the pages of those books. He is a fan of C.S. Lewis, but he said that those insults should not have been placed in a children’s book. Given the fact that there is still a religious war within the Middle East, one can quickly understand why filming those books into movies would be an issue.

On the opposite end, there was the planned movie trilogy based on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy. The Golden Compass/The Northern Lights was a success in North America and Europe, but due to the anti-Christian themes found within the books, the movie was met with several protests. While Phillip Pullman is an atheist, the trilogy is a retelling of the classic work Paradise Lost. Plus, the author is a professor at Oxford University—just like C.S. Lewis was—so there are more allusions within the text that readers might have missed during the first reading.

For instance, “dæmons” are not based on present day society’s belief of “demons.” The former comes from Greek and Roman mythology. They were invisible beings assigned to every individual—masculine for men and feminine for women—who acted as guides for the duration of that person’s life. These dæmons sound more like angels, consciences, etc., not the “evil demons” we have transcribed them to be in modern society. I believe Phillip Pullman used these ancient deities within his novels to point out how much Christian mythology twisted other mythologies to where we forget the actual origins of them. To be honest, I am a little surprise that Rick Riordan did not mention dæmons in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series. Those books were perfect to include such a reference.

This is the scenario that Hollywood has had to deal with, adapting books into films regardless of the backlash they might get due to religious institutions. His Dark Materials halted the series after one movie because too many people called the first movie “anti-Christian” while The Chronicles of Narnia films was halted because people feared that the Muslim community would be offended by them. Other movies have poked fun at religion regardless of the protests and the backlash from society (i.e. the Catholic Church with The DaVinci Code). South Park has mocked all religions for several years (18 seasons), but the creators saw protests when both Islam and Scientology (Isaac Hayes, who voiced “Chef,” quit the show afterwards) were parodied.

Throughout history, many challenged religion with “new” knowledge and these people were either threatened or executed (i.e. Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, etc.). However, it seems that the bigger concern within the religious powerhouses are how they are portrayed in within society, and it appears that the “new” threat is coming from children’s books. While some of the religious themes will most likely be glanced over by younger readers, it is the adults that make something as trivial as messages within a book to be a big deal. The Harry Potter series, while not religious, was met with several protests throughout the world because the books were about a school of witchcraft. Ironically, all seven books were adapted into eight movies, and those novels contain more lessons on morals and ethics than other modern children’s books. The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials also contain choices involving morals and ethics, but remain somewhat controversial as well. When you think about it, there is not really that much of a difference amongst these children’s literary series.

Current events within society have allowed us to witness what happens when there is no balance between literacy and religion. Boko Harem and Al-Qaida are doing everything they can to limit knowledge within their communities (especially amongst women). However, we cannot want every popular book to become adapted into a movie. At the same time, we cannot protest against every movie and/or book with influences to religion due to fear that a mob might be opposed to what is written in the text.

My question is: how many of these “protestors” take the time to read the book? Many people go by what they “hear” about the book instead of reading it. Also, it is known that media adaptations are not always similar to the book! Yes, Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code are books that go against organized religion. However, they are also great stories with interesting information. And yet, I did NOT see any petitions for the continuation of The Chronicles of Narnia movies! Protests work both ways!

To me, it looks as if we must choose between literature and their adaptations and our religious beliefs. No decision needs to be made because not many people want to do one or the other. Movies are straightforward, you either want to see them or not. Religion on the other hand, contains more layers. There are the devout, the spiritual, the ones who take part in it a few times a year, etc. Those who are leaders of these foundations assume the worst before they see what happens. Thus, everyone suffers because of it.

To prove my point further, the novel The Satanic Verses is (supposedly) an excellent work of literature (I just started reading it). However, the amount of backlash the book received upon its publication (1988) and the number of death threats its author, Salman Rushdie, received makes the book sound too dangerous to read. And yet, the book has been read and translated into languages all over the world. Unfortunately, no one has tried to make a media adaptation of the book because everyone is afraid of protests from the Muslim community. Has it ever occurred to you that some of them might have read the book and want the same thing as the other fans/readers?

We should not have to choose between the two because both of them have more in common than we know. Both The Bible miniseries and The Red Tent were successful adaptations based on religious texts. However, we also got Exodus, the visually acclaimed, but historically inaccurate adaptation of the story of Moses (Egypt has refused to show the movie for obvious reasons). There should not be a choice because everyone—even if they are in the same religious community—has a different way of interpreting a work of literature. As long as it is done appropriately, no one should have to choose. Plus, the author almost always includes a personal belief within the pages of their book.