Realm of Ash
by Tasha Suri
496pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.25/5

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Empire of Sand, Tasha Suri’s fantasy debut novel inspired by Mughal India, is a gorgeous novel and one that I found deeply affecting—I loved it so much that it was my choice for Book of the Year in 2018 with its rich storytelling, fascinating world, and beautiful writing. Most of all, I was enchanted by the main characters and the vividly drawn relationships, especially the slow burn romance that grew from respect and common values, and its exploration of choice and connection.

Realm of Ash, the second novel in The Books of Ambha, was one of my most anticipated books of 2019, possibly even my most anticipated book of the year given my fondness for Tasha Suri’s first novel—and just like her debut, it’s a gorgeous book. It’s difficult to say which of the two I enjoyed more, even though I preferred the main characters and love story in the first and thought this one was slower overall. It still has a lovely slow build romance, wonderful characters, and the quality storytelling, world building, and writing that I appreciated about the first, but it’s also a more mature, complex book. It kept me reading late into the night and is one of those special books I expect to reread in the future despite the never-ending pile of books I want to read for the first time.

In short: I loved Realm of Ash and found it deeply affecting, just like Empire of Sand.

Although Realm of Ash expands on the world and consequences resulting from the end of the previous book, it’s more of a companion novel to Empire of Sand than a direct sequel since it follows different characters approximately a decade later. Technically, you could read this book first if you don’t mind discovering the truth about the Empire along with the main protagonist, but I’d recommend reading them in order to get the most out of them.

This novel is a story about Mehr’s younger sister, Arwa, who was only nine years old when the head of the faith forced her only sibling to enter his service because of the power in her blood, rare even for those descended from the gods like herself. Unlike Mehr, who was old enough to remember their mother and learn from her before her exile, Arwa knew very little about that side of her heritage—especially since the woman who married her father and raised her as her own daughter strove to keep it that way. Before she was made to leave home, Mehr did teach Arwa that drawing her blood would keep the daiva she feared from harming her, as they’d realize she’s related to them and recall their vow not to hurt one of their own. But the main lesson ingrained into Arwa about that part of herself was that it was best kept hidden: her father’s people hated her biological mother’s people, and their family fell into disgrace after her sister refused to let go of their rites and traditions.

Now 21 years old, Arwa also knows that this blood is the only reason she’s alive: extracting some spared her from a massacre at the military fort her husband had commanded, making her the sole survivor of an attack caused by a feral spirit. As a widow, she’s expected to either spend the rest of her days with her parents or in a hermitage with other women who outlived their husbands. Fearing the same blood that saved her, Arwa chooses the latter, hoping for respite from curiosity about how she alone evaded death and wishing to spare her family further suffering.

But Arwa is unable to escape the daiva and ends up revealing the truth of her ancestry to another widow, one who still has ties to the royal family. Arwa offers to serve the princess, believing her blood may be key to breaking the curse that has swept through their land ever since their religious leader died several years ago—the same curse that’s resulted in an increase in incidents like the bloodbath she witnessed.

The princess accepts and has Arwa brought to her palace to spend her nights secretly working forbidden occult magic with a scholarly illegitimate prince, who introduces her to the realm of ash: a spirit realm with their ancestors. As a descendant of the head of the faith, the prince seeks to unravel the mystery of keeping the horrors of the curse at bay, a goal that seems within reach with Arwa’s involvement—but the two discover the need to forge a new path, all while facing danger and turmoil within the royal family as the Emperor’s health fails.

Realm of Ash had my interest from the beginning, especially considering that I was already familiar with the world and Arwa’s childhood after reading Empire of Sand, but it did take longer to completely draw me in than the previously published book. The overarching story, Arwa’s development, the romance, and emergent themes are built slowly and carefully—masterfully, and powerfully, as words and scenes come to have immense impact. Like its predecessor, it has high stakes without being action packed, has darkness running through it but is ultimately hopeful, and has a focus on choice and connection, but it’s very much its own tale. As with her previous novel, Tasha Suri is particularly adept at creating relationships with dimension and a lyrically sharp introspective voice, and her exploration of truth, love, power, and anger viewed through Arwa’s eyes is piercing.

Arwa’s journey is intensely poignant—at its heart, it’s about having had a part of herself stolen from her, discovering that piece of herself she never completely realized was missing, and taking it back. From the earliest pages, Arwa’s rage simmers, and as she discovers more about her history and those who had control over it, she comes to realize much of her fury is misdirected. Initially, she blamed Mehr for being taken—for not blending in and behaving as a proper noblewoman should, like Arwa always has—rather than her oppressors. But as she learns more of their shared past, she realizes who is truly to blame and the cruelty inherent in the love that tried to protect her from reality.

Though all of Arwa’s various relationships are compelling, the romance that develops between her and Zahir, the illegitimate prince with whom she traverses the realm of ash, has the most weight. Zahir is despised because of his mother—he could have been executed just like her, if not for his sister’s affection—and is lonely, living and studying in isolation. He knows what it’s like to be unsure of where he stands and which rules others expect him to follow as someone who is royalty yet not; he knows that Arwa may have similar insecurities as a widow who unexpectedly finds herself in the taboo situation of meeting a man alone by order of the princess. As the two work together to figure out how to break the curse, they come to care for each other and come to see themselves as being their own “mystic order of two.” Theirs is a romance founded on common goals and respect, one in which two people who have always had to be careful about showing their true selves can just be their true selves with one another—one in which they lift each other up and are all the stronger for having the other in their life.

Realm of Ash is an enchanting novel with a compelling story, a fantastic world, wonderful characters, and elegant, hauntingly memorable prose. All this, plus the insight it offers into the world in which we live—from society and power structures, to truth and the cost of knowledge, to the necessity of “dreaming a new world”—make it an indelible book. Tasha Suri is a master of crafting poetic, quietly sharp introspection that cuts deep, and both of her novels have great emotional resonance. I can hardly wait to read more of her work.

My Rating: 9/10

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

Reviews of Other Book(s) in The Books of Ambha:

  1. Empire of Sand

Read an Excerpt from Realm of Ash

Read Tasha Suri’s Women in SF&F Month 2019 Essay (on fairy tales and Indian classical dance as an inspiration for the magic system in The Books of Ambha)