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Empire of Sand, Tasha Suri’s fantasy debut novel inspired by Mughal India, is magnificent. Though there is plenty of darkness within its pages, there is also an abundance of light as the main characters fight back against evil and injustice—not with the strength of force and weapons, but with the strength of hearts and minds. It’s a wonderful exploration of themes like choice and connection, and it’s also a treasure trove of rich storytelling with its vibrant characters and relationships, fascinating world, and beautiful writing.

In short: I loved Empire of Sand and found it deeply affecting.

Empire of Sand is the story of Mehr, a noblewoman by virtue of her father’s governorship and an outcast by virtue of her mother’s Amrithi ancestry. When Mehr was young, her mother taught her about their heritage: of the power that dwells in their blood as the descendants of the gods’ children, who once had children of their own with humans. She taught her to draw her own blood for protection against the gods’ children still roaming the land, who had vowed never to hurt one of their lineage; she taught her their stories; she taught her how to dance the rites of their people.

When Mehr was still just a child, her mother was exiled and returned to the desert, leaving her and her baby sister behind. Mehr grew up with a stepmother who despised her and did all she could to prevent Mehr from teaching her sister about Amrithi history and traditions. Largely isolated within her father’s home, Mehr had only one true friend with whom she could be herself, another Amrithi woman called Lalita who had looked after her in her mother’s absence.

Lalita, who has been hiding the fact that she’s Amrithi for years, visits Mehr one day bearing news that she believes her identity may have been compromised and that she must leave. However, a rare dreamfire storm—in which the dreams of the gods sleeping beneath the desert visibly shape the world—is imminent, and she cannot resist staying just a little longer so she and Mehr can dance the Rite of Dreaming together.

But when the dreamfire begins to fall, Lalita does not come. Knowing her friend must be in trouble to miss such an opportunity, Mehr sneaks out of the house to go to her, but having lived a rather secluded life, she does not know how to get there. She desperately begs the gods to take her to her friend’s home, and to her surprise, the dreamfire shows her the way. Though she finds blood and death, she does not find Lalita—but the Empire’s religious leader finds Mehr when she awakens her ability to control dreamfire, rare even among Amrithi.

Mystics come to her father’s household with a document signed by both the Maha, the head of the faith, and the Emperor, declaring they intend to honor Mehr with marriage to an esteemed man of their order. Enraged by the poorly disguised command and the certainty that this cannot end well for Mehr, her father arranges for her to flee. Mehr refuses: she realizes they’ll find her eventually and fears what they may do to her family, especially her young sister, in the meantime. She’s quickly wed to Amun, whom she was only allowed to meet once before their hasty wedding, and brought to the temple.

There, Mehr discovers the dark secrets of the Empire’s success and longevity—and the Maha’s plan to use both sides of her heritage to bind her to perform rites that are anathema to Amrithi. But her new husband has perfected the art of finding loopholes that allow him to resist the Maha’s orders, and with his help, Mehr believes she may be able to free them from their bonds and set things right with the gods…

Empire of Sand is an emotionally intense, memorable novel—one that I expect to be toward the top of my favorite books of 2018 list. I first read it a couple of months before its November release and found it captivating, but I waited to write about it since I didn’t want to review it too early. I actually ended up rereading much of it recently in hopes of better doing this wonderful book justice, and as compelling as I found it before, I found it even more compelling the second time. Those first 50–60 pages no longer seemed slow to me, and I appreciated how they showed a glimpse into Mehr’s early life and relationships, especially given that a major theme of the novel is the impact of connections between people. Though I still thought the occasional brief preludes interspersed between Mehr’s story were unnecessary (though not uninteresting), I loved everything else about it from the magic and mythology, to the lovely writing, to the characters, to the romance, to the themes—but, most of all, Mehr.

Courageous, determined Mehr is the heart and soul of Empire of Sand. Though it is her unusual magic that sets events in motion, it’s Mehr who primarily drives the story: not merely because of what she can do, but mainly because of who she is. Every single choice Mehr makes, no matter how seemingly small or constrained by terrible circumstances, influences the course—this is truly her story, one that could not have unfolded the same way were anyone else at its center. The calmer moments are often the ones that stand out the most—when Mehr chooses hope over despair, kindness and honesty over manipulation and distrust—because these choices clearly shape what follows and cascade to create the eventual outcome. Mehr’s choices affect her relationships with others, her ability to work with and learn from them, as well as how much support she receives when she does inevitably falter or make mistakes.

In particular, Mehr’s choices, determination, and optimism affect the development of her relationship with her new husband, Amun—as do his own choices and determination in return. Having been caught in the Maha’s web for longer than Mehr has been, Amun does not have her optimism. However, he does have cunning and fortitude, and his refusal to simply give in to the Maha’s commands—despite the high personal cost of fighting them—and his honesty with Mehr about their situation allow the two to begin building trust. There’s no immediate attraction between the two; instead, their romance grows naturally from their shared circumstances as they become allies and come to understand one another. Mehr and Amun are well matched since they both have vast reserves of inner strength, and they also inspire and help each other. Together, they discover ways to forge a new path for themselves even after it seemed as though their choices had been taken from them.

Though I found Mehr and Amun (both as individuals and as a couple) to be the highlights, Empire of Sand is an exquisite book overall. The prose is not especially dense, and it flows well and features some elegant descriptions of the desert, the gods’ children, and Mehr’s surroundings and feelings. Her third person perspective is straightforward without leaving room for subtlety, but I also felt as though it conveyed more about her childhood and how it molded her than what was stated through her narrative. The mythical world adds both beauty and darkness, and the expertly woven-in themes exploring oppression and resistance, choices, and the strength of bonds between people add depth and insight that make this book stand out even more.

Empire of Sand is an extraordinary debut, a phenomenal novel, and a wonderful feat of character-driven storytelling. I absolutely loved this unforgettable book, and I’m looking forward to reading more by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Empire of Sand