Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Had it not been for the author's name appearing on the 2020 Hugo ballot (part of the Astounding Award ballot for best new writer) I would most likely have overlooked this book. That would have been a shame. This is a lovely book, beautifully written, with a sure hand rarely found in a debut novel.
According to the author's interview in the rear of the book, a lot of the worldbuilding is based on India's Mughal Empire (the map in the front is obviously the real-world country with fantasy names slapped on it) and the magic system is drawn from Hindu beliefs and rites. I'm not an expert on any of that, of course, but it certainly makes this book different from the usual run of European-derived fantasies. I'm glad we can now get books like this, especially when they're as good as this one.
What impressed me most, however, is the protagonist, Mehr. The description "strong female character" has become something of a cliche, especially since it was undermined by the bare-midriffed, butt-shaking cover poses of such protagonists during the urban fantasy craze. (Which I know a bit about, because I bought, and still own, a LOT of those books.) Mehr is a well-written subversion of that trope. She does not know martial arts or wield a katana; she is the daughter of a provincial governor raised in the Ambhan society's suffocating protection and seclusion, to the point where she does not even know how to sew a rip in her own clothes...but her inner strength and drive causes her to change the world.
The second impressive thing about this book is the slow burn romance that becomes a vital part of the plot. Mehr and her husband, Amun, are married to each other very much against their wills, to exploit the magical power they wield. The relationship that develops, and the sacrifices they are willing to make for each other, enable Mehr's ultimate triumph. The themes of sacrifice and choice are prominent throughout this book, which gives it poignancy and depth.
I would liked to have known a bit more about the history of the Ambhan Empire, which is the only knock I have on this book--the worldbuilding is not as deep as it could be. That is minor. The characterizations are spot on, including the alien, otherworldly daiva. This is just a damn fine novel, and it's astonishing that it's the author's debut.
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