Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Empire of Sand

I saw Tasha Suri's Empire of Sand at work the other day.  It sounded really interesting, so I decided to give it a read. 

Empire of Sand is the story of Mehr.  She is the illegitimate daughter of an Ambhan Governor and an Amrithi woman.  Her mother was exiled when Mehr was younger and her father married another woman who disliked Mehr almost immediately because she visibly looks Amrithi.  The Amrithi are outcasts, considered to be barbarians by the Ambhan, I think mainly because their culture is so different: the Amrithi are nomads who dwell in the desert and are descended from the daiva.

Mehr lives mainly in solitude, taking comfort only in the times when she is permitted to visit her younger sister, Arwa.  Arwa doesn't visibly look Amrithi, so their stepmother has taken it upon herself to raise Arwa in ignorance of her Amrithi heritage (which Mehr insists on practicing - her father, out of guilt, allows her to continue her practice).  So Mehr spends much of her time dancing the Amrithi rites her mother and later her friend Lalita taught her; the rites bring her joy.

A dreamfire storm is approaching Mehr's home soon (dreamfire is the manifestation of the Gods' dreams - the Gods are slumbering under the desert).  Her teacher promises that they will dance one of the rites together; Mehr is excited because it is the first time she as ever been able to.  But when her teacher fails to appear, Mehr leaves the house to look for her.  When the storm surrounds her, she pleads with it to lead her to Lalita; she finds only Lalita's friend and guardian Usha dying instead. Once the storm passes, Mehr is found by her father's guards, but disgraced because she is wearing no veil.  Her father tells her her actions will have consequences, and so she will be forced to marry.  While Mehr has never wanted to marry, especially someone from another province because she does not want to lose her Amrithi heritage, she at least will be given the choice of who to marry: this choice is the only one permitted to Ambhan women - the choice of whose burdens to share; it is a choice that the Ambhan take very seriously and is respected by all.  And while Mehr is part Amrithi, she is also part Ambhan, and so this is a choice she will have to make for herself.

Unfortunately Mehr's actions during the storm draw the attention of the Maha, the spiritual leader of the Ambham Empire (and the first Emperor who has been alive for many generations).  He has been searching for Amrithi with the gift and Mehr has revealed herself to have it.  His mystics arrive and inform Mehr that the Maha has a possible suitor for her.  Everyone knows that Mehr is not being given a real choice, that if she refuses the Maha he will have her family killed.  The nobles are angered, and her father wants to spirit her away to another province, but Mehr insists on accepting the match to protect her family, especially her sister.

And so she is married to Amun.  Unexpectedly, the vow is a physical thing on her skin - that is why the Amrithi make no vows (and why Mehr's mother refused to marry her father).  Vows are true binding things to the Amrithi - going against a vow will physically hurt you (and can literally kill you).  Amun has been bound to the Maha, and was instructed to lie with Mehr so that she would be bound to share his burdens (which are whatever the Maha demands); hating that Mehr was given no choice in the matter, Amun chooses to fight the vow subtly - they lie together but do not have sex to seal the deal. 

Mehr is brought with the mystics to the Maha's temple.  Everything she ever knew and loved is forcibly ripped from her (and even her culture in many ways - Mehr was raised as an Ambhan noblewoman, which meant she wore veils like armor - here her face is always bare for all to see).  The only constant is Amun, who Mehr learns is not at all the animal the other mystics treat him as.  She learns that the two of them are required to perform the Rite of the Binding, which is how the Maha has been living so long (and making the Empire prosper) - he channels the dreamfire through his Amrithi servants and uses his mystics to direct the dreams of the Gods to favour the Empire.  Mehr dares to dream of escape, for both her and Amun.  But Amun is truly bound to the Maha, and has no idea how long he can fight his vow and keep Mehr free.

Empire of Sand was awesome!  I particularly loved the worldbuilding - it's based off of Mughal Indian culture, I believe.  I loved how the Amrithi vows worked, too.  And also the Rites, how they were dances. 

I also quite liked Mehr and Amun.  Even though she felt very out of place and at times useless, Mehr helped Amun dream and hope again.  I started out not sure how to feel about her (she talked about using people a fair bit, but she was also raised in a very bad situation with her stepmother before moving into an even worse situation under the Maha, so it was kind of understandable).  In the end I thought she was a very noble woman who had grown a lot into a better person.  Amun had a rather quiet and understated character, but that was okay because it was him.  He had a subtle humour, which I loved, and was just a perfect match for Mehr in so many ways.  I really enjoyed reading about their adventures.

One thing that made me kind of shake my head (although this wasn't exactly a bad thing), was how the "bad guys" of the story were: they treated both Amun and Mehr as tools and as subhuman.  The Maha and one of his female mystics, Kalini, were particularly bad for that.  I wonder how the story might have been had people been kinder to Mehr?  If the Maha hadn't taken great pleasure in making her fear him?  Or if Kalini had encouraged Mehr to make friends (particularly with her sister, Hema?)

Overall, I loved reading Empire of Sand.  Between the worldbuilding, the characters, and the story itself, it is a fantastic book that I cannot recommend enough!

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