Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

I loved this debut fantasy novel by Tasha Suri.  It’s well-written and creates a fascinating world with a terrifying villain.  It’s inspired by the Mughal Empire of India, something I knew absolutely nothing about before reading this book — which is why fiction by diverse writers is so important.  Suri brings cultural references and perspectives to this story that aren’t often found in fantasy novels.

The heroine is Mehr, who grows up the daughter of a Governor, who’s expected to suppress her Amrithri side, which comes from her mother.  Her mother abandoned Mehr and her younger sister years ago, and now the Amrithri are being hunted down by the Empire.  Mehr refuses, however, to let go of her Amrithri beliefs.  She and her friend/mentor Lalita plan to perform an Amrithi ritual rite during the upcoming storm, but when her friend doesn’t show up, Mehr ventures out into the storm to find her.

At the beginning of the book I worried a bit because of a few tropes – the mean stepmother, for one, and the heroine who has more power than she realizes.  However, even though this book does use a few plot points that have been done before, most of it felt really original.  I was intrigued by the idea of magic through ritual dance, for example.  I also liked that while there was a clear villain in this story, there was definitely some moral gray area on all sides.

Suri tackles a wide range of issues in this story, from racism to cultural assimilation to privilege to religion to the politics of marriage.  Throughout, she writes about the choices her characters make, and the importance of being able to make choices, despite the possible consequences.

I was also intrigued by the way Mehr thinks about clothing and veils.  I’m used to thinking of women’s clothing, especially veils, as repressive, but Mehr sees them as protective, and feels exposed and vulnerable without them.

Two things I especially appreciated about this book: first, you really see Mehr’s character grow.  So many fantasy novels start and end with a perfect heroine who does everything right.  I felt like Suri introduced a lot of hesitancy and doubt into this character, who feels very put upon in the beginning but knows nothing about the world.  And second, I loved Mehr’s relationship with Amun, which develops gradually.

I really appreciated the thoughtful pace of this book.  I will note that many readers on Goodreads felt this book moves too slowly, especially in the middle third.  It was even called “slow fantasy” by some reviewers.  For me, the pacing was just right and I would have been disappointed if it moved faster.  It’s a lengthy book but I moved through it in just a few days and enjoyed every moment.  Suri does a great job creating a vivid atmosphere and a complex world.

This is one of the more impressive debut fantasy novels I’ve read.  While I’m not directly comparing it to Katherine Arden’s excellent novels, if you’re looking for thoughtful fantasy set in a different country and culture, I think you’ll like this book.

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Orbit Books.  This book published on November 13, 2018.

  2 comments for “Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

  1. November 26, 2018 at 11:52 am

    Wonderful review, and I cannot wait to read this one! I really enjoy reading diverse fantasy for the same reasons that you mentioned – and it is nice to have something new, rather than the same old Western-inspired concepts.

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