(I got hit by the flu briefly last week and have been struggling to catch up ever since! Anyway, here’s Empire of Sand, finally.)
In a world of sand and blood and spirits, Mehr is the daughter of a provincial governor, the sheltered daughter of an Ambhan nobleman. But she is also the daughter of an Amrithi woman and she has inherited the talents of her mother’s people. She has spent her life hiding her abilities until the one time she takes a chance and embraces who she is, which changes her life and the lives of those around her forever.
It’s now been a minute since I finished reading Empire of Sand (Orbit 2018)and some of the details have started to fade a bit. But what’s interesting is that as I’ve had time to consider it, I feel like I can see the book’s strengths and weaknesses a bit more clearly than when I had just put it down.
One of those strengths is the vividness of the descriptions and worldbuilding. This is a fairly sweeping story, taking place across multiple settings, but I didn’t feel confused or uprooted. Suri also considers the way settings and spaces might contain different worlds and facets and uses that to further the storytelling, which I always love. The prose is sometimes a little more on the florid side than I tend to really enjoy, but that’s more of a personal taste than anything else.
The world of Empire of Sand and its systems and factions are complex–multiple cultural and ethnic groups, several approaches to religious belief and political power. I felt that the story deliberately embraces this sense of liminal and fraught identity and background to create something that is more interesting than a standard faux-medieval fantasy world. Mehr’s place within these competing groups is both unique and not, and Suri does a fantastic job of showing the challenges and joys of her identity.
My most negative feelings are about the romantic thread of the story. It’s a storyline that could have been really problematic and I felt that it was approached with a lot of care and consideration. But I still never really bought into the dynamic between the two characters even though I liked the idea of it. I would have been fine had it been left as respect and friendship.
On the plus side, I did really appreciate that throughout the book, consequences are considered. Mehr has to face the results of her choices, not only on her own life but on the lives of those around her. Sometimes fantasy protagonists go through the world leaving devastation in their wake, but here that becomes part of the story as well.
Throughout the book, Mehr has multiple interesting relationships with women of other ages and backgrounds, from her sister to her Amrithi mentor and the Ambhan mystics who are the main antagonists of the story. I loved this, and the fact that they’re not simple sisterhood nor competition and dislike. However, I did not like the characterization of her stepmother, particularly the fact that her poor treatment of Mehr and Arwa is said to be because she’s unable to have children of her own (really!). I felt this unfortunately undercut the strength of the other relationships throughout the book.
Overall, I did find Empire of Sand to have a lot of new and interesting takes on familiar fantasy themes. Mehr is a strong protagonist who has a lot of innate talent but who also has to face the results of her choices and abilities. Apparently there will be at least one more book to follow which looks like it may focus on Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister.
Previously, on By Singing Light:
Books I could reread forever (2018)
Is this a kissing book(list)? (2017)
Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner (2016)
Favorite Heroines (2015)
Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee (2014)