Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the sequel to Empire of Sand, the excellent first book of this series. It takes place approximately twelve years later, dealing with the consequences of the events in the first book. The protagonist this time around is Arwa, the younger sister of Mehr, the first book's protagonist (although Mehr does make a brief appearance).
As with the first book, the themes are sacrifice and choice. This story takes an even deeper dive into its two main characters, however: Arwa, the young widow (one of the crueler aspects of the Empire is the fact that widows are never permitted to marry again, and are instead exiled to "hermitages," isolated houses where they apparently spend the rest of their days) who has tried to fit into the rigid box of "noblewoman" all her life, doing what is expected of her, and Zahir, the illegitimate son of the Emperor who is searching for a way to mitigate the events of the first book. Both of these characters are locked into roles ill-suited to them, and their journey throughout the book, among other things, is about their attempts to break free.
What's interesting about Arwa and Zahir, following on the heels of Mehr, is that neither of them are warriors or fighters: Zahir is a scholar, and Arwa, working with him, becomes one. The author evidently likes protagonists with different kinds of strengths, and she portrays them very well. Together, Arwa and Zahir journey into the "realm of ash," the land of the dead that holds the memories of their ancestors, trying to find the knowledge and memories of the dead Maha, killed in the first book and his control over the Empire broken. What they find lays bare the terrible bargain the Empire was founded on--enslaving Arwa's mother's people, the Amrithi, who through their magic controlled the dreams of the gods--and makes them question whether the country and cause they have dedicated themselves to is worth upholding.
This book is a little slower-paced than the first, as between the complex journeys of the characters and the ethical questions the situation poses, there's a lot going on here. (There's also another very well done slow burn romance.) The worldbuilding is fascinating, and Ambhan and Amrithi cultures well drawn, and the characterizations outstanding. This is just a fine, fine book.
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