I read ‘Empire of Sand’ by Tasha Suri for Asian Readathon 2020, and it’s the first book in the ‘The Books of Ambha’ series and is a YA fantasy novel. It currently has an average rating of 3.86 stars on Goodreads, and I have rated it 4 stars.
The story follows Mehr, trapped between two cultures and the illegitimate daughter of a governor and an Amrithi nomad whose culture and magic have been outlawed. Caught one night practising rites that have been forbidden, Mehr captures the attention of the Emperor’s feared mystics and now has to use everything at her disposal to escape their cruel agenda.
‘Mehr understood, too, the great cost of defiance.’
When I first found this book I hadn’t heard of it, there were no pictures on Bookstagram, no bloggers talking about and I hadn’t even seen it in a booktube video – I was immediately intrigued. It said it was a fantasy book based largely on Indian mythology which I thought readers would fawn over and be desperate to get their hands on a copy – but there was no one talking about it. So I decided to give it a go, and I’m so glad I did.
Mehr was a really enjoyable protagonist as I felt that she grew throughout the story. It would be very easy to label her as just another ‘badass’ YA woman protagonist, but she was much more than that. Throughout the novel she became less timid and more outspoken, she broaden her understanding of the world, she became stronger and far more confident in herself and her abilities, and she also opened her heart up to people. I think she was a great protagonist and at no point did I think she was another ‘typical YA woman badass’, she was a young woman coming into her own in horrible circumstances.
Whilst we only follow Mehr’s perspective in the book, we are introduced to a whole host of secondary characters. For as many of them as there were Suri did an incredible job ensuring that none of them felt flat or like blank slates – she made you care for each of them. Which was a great feat considering not all of them feature in the narrative for long stretches of time, but they all made you feel something.
The villain in this was also very interesting, I found him to be fascinating as well as the cult he had built around him (but that may just be because I found the concept of cults and how they function intriguing). I thought Suri did a good job in showcasing and exploring what the villain’s methods and beliefs did to the people of the land, and how they suffered because of the rules they enforced. It was also interesting to see what the antagonist’s motives were in this as it didn’t think it was immediately obvious, and not what I would regard as standard YA antagonist motives or belief, it felt a little more complex than what we usually see.
The only criticism I have of the characters is that I didn’t enjoy the romance in this novel. Whilst I enjoyed the two separately I didn’t see them clearly as a romantic pair, however it didn’t feel terrible or forced. I understand how they came to be together but I honestly think they would have been better in a platonic relationship. Although, the build-up to the relationship was done well as it felt natural instead of like insta-love.
The magic system and world-building in this felt like a breath of fresh air in the YA literary landscape. Whilst there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding how many fantasy worlds are usually built on European mythology and European medieval settings, and we’re currently seeing a surge in fantasies that aren’t built on these, I’ve not yet seen a magic system or world like this yet. There were Gods that didn’t feel like any Gods I had seen before and dream magic that was tied to dancing that also felt new, it was a joy to learn how the world and magic system worked.
The one thing that I believe will turn most people off from this read is probably the pacing. This is very slow at parts and almost reads like a adult fantasy novel at times because of this, as there are stretches of pages where it feels like not much happens, but when things do happen they really pack a punch. It’s not for readers who enjoy fast-paced fantasies, but if you can stand slower paced fantasies then this should be fine if you power through a few parts in the novel, which undeniably could have been shorter.
Overall, this is a great YA fantasy debut novel. It has a fascinating world with a magic system I haven’t seen anything like before, and it stands apart in the YA fantasy landscape because of this. Whilst it does have some flaws, the character work in this is very good and largely makes the novel enjoyable.