The Good: Empire of Sand delivers exactly what it says on the tin and THEN SOME! Strong female lead (check), magic by birth but you know there’s more to it than that (check), empires and gods (check), non-western fantasy (in this case inspired by India’s Mughal empire) (BIG CHECK).
The Bad: The pace seemed to ease up a little toward the middle of the book, at least in terms of overall plot, and I’d have liked to see more of the ‘stakes’ at this point (more sleeping gods, please!) but I wouldn’t let these minor points overshadow what is one of the most exciting releases of the year.
The Ugly Truth: Now THIS is the fantasy I’ve been after without even knowing it: sleeping gods, daiva and a desert landscape that’s not just ‘sand-sand-sand’, myth and magic that’s so fully-realised that it’s real and a magic system based on dance and the dreams of the gods. Say it with me now: not-just-another-white-medieval-fantasy.
Review: Did I really just say that (above)? ‘One of the most exciting releases of the year.’ REALLY? I try not to use clichés where possible, but, in this instance, it’s true.
This isn’t one of the most exciting releases of the year. This is one of the most exciting releases of the past five if not ten years for me. Sure, anyone in the fantasy community will have heard the call for more diverse fantasy voices and stories, and there have been many (but not enough! MORE PLEASE) to answer this call, but I have yet to come across ANYTHING like Empire of Sand.
Why? Well, let me tell you about Empire of Sand and then I’ll explain.
In Empire of Sands, Mehr, is a half-Ambhan half-Amrithi daughter to an Ambhan governor. Her Amrithi heritage, and the power in her blood because of it, earns her the attention of the Mystics, agents of the Maha, a high-priest like figure of the Ambhan Empire, who manipulate traditions and treaties to trap Mehr in an arranged marriage with seemingly no escape. Bound to a seeming barbarian of a husband whose physical scars hide those beneath, Mehr is shackled to the Maha’s service through her vows, and forced to wield the power of sleeping gods’ dreams (manifested as storms) at the heart of the desert.
So why have I yet to come across anything like EoS?
Mehr is the headstrong and hearty heroine I’ve always longed for. She’s not perfect – no-one truly is – but she is perfect in her own imperfect way. Most importantly, she’s believable. Here we have a young woman taken from all she knows, and thrust into the clutches of a cult-like coven whose leader is awesome as he is atrocious. Her thoughts, instincts, emotions, all of it is believable. It’s reasonable. Rational. And though I hope no-one can relate to the scenario thrust upon Mehr, dare I say it, she is relatable for the very fact that she is presented as human. And sure, to be human is to be flawed, but it is also to be resilient. To think, feel and ultimately overcome the challenges we face, no matter how big or small they might be.
Secondly – world building. Excuse the sound of clapping as I’m still giving Suri the standing ovation she deserves. NOT-JUST-ANOTHER-WHITE-FANTASY. There are so many things I could go on about here, but I’d like to highlight the fact that this book is almost entirely set in ‘the desert’ (or locations within one) and not once does it feel like ‘just a lot of sand’. I’ve been to deserts. Not all of it is sand. And even when it is, it isn’t ‘just sand’. There are shapes, dunes, stretches to the horizon, beyond and back. The desert is a beautiful place. It’s a dangerous place. And the Empire of Sand captures those facts wonderfully.
Also on the world building point: sleeping gods whose dreams hold the power to change the world? A dance-based magic system to shape those dreams, for ill or good will? A power-hungry puppet-master of a patriarch who reigns through love and loathing? What more could you ask for?
Which leads me nicely onto the plot and the story itself. Conscious that I’ve already covered a lot of ground, and not to spoil anything, there’s elements of ‘a chosen one’ and ‘magic school’ here, similar to R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, minus the fighting and more grimdark tones. And not forgetting the ‘romance’ element of the plot. Now, I can almost hear the collective eyeroll of a chunk of the fantasy reader community, those who ‘don’t like romance as part of the plot’. But listen up – this isn’t just well written romance, it’s real. The relationship(s) in Empire of Sand are plausible and they most certainly have a purpose. I could liken Empire of Sand’s romance to dozens of other books (elsewhere I’ve seen Melissa Caruso’s Words and Fire trilogy mentioned, as well as the works of Sarah J Mass and Trudi Canavan on the back of the book itself), but I don’t really see the point here. Speaking generally, though I hope not out of turn, ‘Twilight’ seems to be the claymore-explosive that anti-romance fantasy readers point at anything attempting a relationship beyond a ‘grimdark grunt’ of a one-night stand. Feelings? BANG! Sentiment? BANG. Holding hands? BANG BANG BANG. Pillow talk WITHOUT the sexy-time?
Let me just put it this way: if romance isn’t your *thing* (be it because of sparkly vampires or otherwise) try this. You might find that actually it is, and you just didn’t realise it. Like when you were a kid, and you didn’t want to sit next to the boy/girl in class because of cooties or whatever, yet now you’re an adult and you’d give anything for that special someone to catch your eye.
I’m rambling now…
Look, I’m just one person. An average, white, male, middle-aged not-yet-thirty, able-bodied person. In terms of books I normally go for anything with an underdog, fighting and flirting throughout, with so many battles its hard to tell where one stops and the other ends, set in as far flung a fantasy land as you can conjure. I’m a sucker for ANY book with a ‘jerk-merc’ (read: mercenary jerks, who most likely smirk a lot, too) thing going for them. Which is why, for me to go on and on (and on) about a book that doesn’t have a mud and blood and guts battle scene, that isn’t told via the POV of a ‘jerk-merc’ who barely has time to say something clever he/she is too busy smirking, then Empire of Sands is a special book indeed. Definitely one of the most exciting releases of the year*.
*Screw it – I genuinely love this book. IT GAVE ME FEELINGS!