Empire of Sand is the first book in Tasha Suri’s new series, The Books of Ambha.
Being the daughter of Governor of Irinah has its benefits, even for illegitimate children, like Mehr. Benefits even though her exiled mother was an Amrithi, a folk despised by the Ambhan ruling class. Mehr appreciates her privileges only when she loses them.
Mehr’s stepmother Maryam has worked diligently to turn her two stepdaughters into proper Ambhan ladies. Maryam may have succeeded with Arwa, but she failed with Mehr, who has inherited her mother’s semi-divine blood. This is not to condemn Maryam as an evil stepmother; she may not love her stepdaughters but she has a duty to them. She hopes to protect them from the prejudice and persecution they might face as part-Amrithi, primarily by erasing any trace of their Amrithi heritage.
Mehr has been to a great extent shielded from the persecution. She knew that Amrithi were despised; she did not know that they were being wiped out.
She discovers the awful truth when, out of sheer desperation, she works Amrithi magic in public. The empire takes notice. She is ordered to marry a man of the empire’s choosing. Astoundingly, the man she is to marry is one of the Empire’s mysterious and feared theological adepts. The source of their abilities is not known but that they have tremendous power is undeniable. They are are also undeniably celibate, save, apparently, for this one case.
She is to be recruited into the service of the Maha, the immortal ruler of the empire. Amrithi servants are preferred; their living magic is useful to the Maha. Most Amrithi would rather die than serve; a few choose to live. One of them is Amun, the man she is required to marry.
Marry and serve — or die.
I didn’t really buy the core romance here. Statistically speaking, how likely is it that just the right person would be the very one that fate puts in one’s path? Although … I suppose being chosen for magical potential does increase the odds somewhat. Plus the Maha is exactly the sort of character doomed to be hoist by his own petard. It makes sense he would insist the two people he needs to keep apart marry each other.
Mehr gets herself into hotter water than she needs to in large part because she has been denied vital, need to know information about her people and the peculiar limitations of their abilities. In the case of her stepmother, Maryam withholds information because she’s trying to protect Mehr from herself. Something similar is true for Mehr’s father. Mehr does have one Amrithi friend, hidden in plain sight by passing as another ethnicity. It’s shame that person never mentioned why Amrithi should be wary of taking vows.
Suri uses the Mughal Empire as a template for her fantasy world. There are, of course, differences. For instance, the conqueror Babur didn’t become a desert-dwelling ageless demi-god, reshaping reality to fit his dreams. As the Maha did.
What does ring true in the fictional rotoscoping is the fragility of the empire. Just as has happened over and over again, empires rise … and fall. The Ambhan empire, aided by divine magic, has never failed. The empire and its ruling class have no coping mechanisms to deal with failure . Mehr’s struggle to find a third option (not serve, not die) exposes a fundamental weakness. What that might be, I cannot tell you. Spoilers. I can say the repercussions of Mehr’s revelation shake the empire to its foundations.
It took decades for the Mughal Empire to go from Aurangzeb’s bloody reign to Nader Shah’s sack of Delhi. Thirty or forty years of escalating chaos should offer Suri ample scope for any number of novels.
I liked Mehr and rooted for her as she struggled to escape the limited roles offered her. I was also curious to see just where the author will take the series after this debut novel. It can be read as a standalone, but it is also a cliffhanger. Whither the empire?
1: Aside from the specific, “you have disappointed the Maha or his current puppet Emperor” mode of failure, which likely results in consignment to a distant and obscure part of the empire or a starring role in an execution. That’s limited to individuals and their families.