The Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99

Mehr is a girl trapped between two cultures. Her father comes form the ruling classes of the empire, but her mother’s people were outcasts – Amrithi nomads who worshipped the spirits of the sands.

Caught one night performing these forbidden rites, Mehr is brought to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, who try to force her into their service by way of an arranged marriage. If she fails in their bidding, the gods themselves may awaken and seek vengeance….

We tend to go large in Fantasy. The operatic vistas and battles of a thousand soldiers can of course be a thing of violent beauty but I do think on occasion we forget the power of the more personal closed story. By focusing on the world in miniature you can also gain a huge insight into the cultures and emotional journeys our characters are all on. In Tasha Suri’s enthralling debut, we are given a fascinating intensely personal story that is one of the most engrossing debuts of this year.

The Ambhan Empire has been maintained for centuries through the armed might of the Emperor and the mystical powers of the mysterious Maha. The Maha maintains the Emperor’s control and his powers can lead to the death of entire cities or their populations if felt a threat to the Empire’s prosperity.  It’s an Empire of different traditions and there are tensions.  The ruling Ambhan groups have governorships to control towns and on the edge in Irinah the nomadic Amrithi tribe are increasingly viewed as a superstitious remnant of the past.

Mehr is the daughter of an Ambhan Governor and an Amrithi nomad who briefly fell in love but found their relationship didn’t work. Her mother moved into the desert while Mehr and her sister Arwa after a few years find themselves with an Ambhan step-mother who feels that only Arwa has the potential to be passed off as a member of true society. Mehr instead must rely on her mother’s friend to understand the traditions and rites of her own heritage. When her friend goes mysteriously missing Mehr is seen performing Amrithi customs and her father decides to prevent any more disgrace to the family, that Mehr needs to be sent away to get married.  Unfortunately, the Maha appears to have been expecting this and sent his mystics across the desert to immediately get Mehr married to the mysterious Amun and then whisked back to the Maha’s desert palace.  Mehr then finds out how the Maha has maintained power and why he is always hunting down the Amrithi. Amun and Mehr may be the only people capable of stopping him but the cost may be too high.

There is a huge amount to love in this story. Our central character Mehr is human; capable but prone to acting without thinking. Far more comfortable with her mother’s heritage she is fiercely protective of her sister and increasingly aware as one of her oldest friends is having to flee her town that the Empire is not quite what she expected. Her loyalty to her sister and father makes her take the decision to get married to Amun but then the book has a fascinating relationship between her and Amun. She quickly finds Amun is far more than just one of the Maha’s mystics; the others in the group of suspicious of him; the Maha values his powers but forces his obedience and he soon turns out to be Amrithi himself. There is an intriguing view on communication as Amun has had to find ways around the Maha’s godlike control his use of language masks his true intents, but he is shocked to discover that Mehr reads his body language far better than he is used to. Their relationship is a combination of learning to reveal each other’s motives and their deepening trust is the emotional core of the book. Two key characters that will really make you both fear for their survival and hope for that moment they admit what they’re secretly feeling for each other.

The villains in the story are equally well drawn. Mehr’s stepmother and father could be your default cruel parents but, in this story, there is a depth where you realise the Empire has shaped their behaviours. It’s a world where women must be veiled when in public and her only actual choice is who she marries.  Power and status are sought subtly and while you may not approve of their behaviour you understand this. The true villain and one of the most terrifying in how he is both incredibly still and yet hinting at explosive violence is the Maha. He’s the most powerful person in the empire having been there for most of its existence; his mystics are unswervingly loyal and chillingly willing to follow his orders. Even a simple dinner scene is tense as Mehr, Amun and the Maha try to work out who knows what and the consequences if found out will be deadly.

This leads to one of the most impressive aspects of the book. Rather than endless pages of exposition to explain the world and its history the focus is more on the personal and the lives of the characters and this gives you so much more insight into how people live. A simple early scene at the beginning focusing on a scared child at night allows Mehr to explain the mysterious entities known as the daiva that dominate the book’s secrets. A strangely sad wedding scene explains the society that divides men from women and the culture where a woman’s face never to be revealed to anyone bar family and husband and even a simple scene where the women who live in the Maha’s palace have a night of games and betting suddenly makes you see that the Maha’s followers are wonderfully human and you care about what may happen to them. The whole world feels lived in and just full of myths and magical places to explore further.

This one of the most impressive debuts this year and is a startlingly well-developed world and Suri’s use of character and style grips the reader.It’s beautifully paced with revelations and reveals that make you want to reach the end.I am very pleased that there is to be another instalment (focusing on a very different lead character) next year.I definitely think this is a fantasy series you should look to start reading now because I’m intrigued where this goes next.