At the beginning of Empire of Sand, Mehr is living a half life. She is half-Ambhan, and that, combined with the fact that her father is the governor, makes her favored throughout court. However, her mother’s Amriti blood — a people who are hunted to the edges of the Empire because they are descended from spirits of the desert — casts a shadow over Mehr. (The part where her parents were never married and her mother abandoned her certainly doesn’t help Mehr’s situation.) Still, she plays the role that she’s supposed to, as an obedient and dutiful daughter, in hopes that she can continue to slip under the radar and avoid the wrath of her stepmother.
Mehr can’t help but attract attention wherever she goes, though, and that’s part of her problem in Empire of Sand. She tries so hard to be ordinary, but from the very first page of Tasha Suri’s epic novel, which is based on the Mughal era of Indian history, it’s clear that Mehr has a destiny about her. She’s going to change lives and alter the fates of everyone around her, even if she doesn’t want to — perhaps even because she doesn’t want to. She radiates strength and power from an inner core, even as she hesitates because she’s unsure of herself. She doesn’t yet know what she’s capable of, but the reader can see it shining through.
While the Emperor is the political leader of the Ambhan Empire, the Maha is its feared spiritual leader. And when Mehr attracts the attention of this otherworldly, ruthless being, she knows her life will be changed forever. As Mehr tries to make a new life under the Maha’s close eye, the secrets and lies of the Ambhan Empire spill out before her and she must decide how to use her power once and for all.
Suri presents the reader with a fascinating tale in Empire of Sand. The setting is incredibly rich; the world feels lived in, as though we are merely hearing one story against a backdrop of thousands. The corners of the Ambhan Empire are vast, and Suri makes it seem endless, one sand dune leading to another just like it. It’s hard to comprehend the size of this world, and how small Mehr feels within it.
The mix of religion, politics, and the paranormal is really a treat in this novel. Suri has smart social commentary built in, thanks to the treatment of the Amrithi, but she doesn’t stop there. It’s a provocative read that will make readers think about the effects of religion on a population, both positive and negative, and how it can be used for both good and ill.
One of the key themes in Empire of Sand is that doing what’s right isn’t always the best course of action. What might be morally correct in a vacuum doesn’t always play out well when it could affect the lives of thousands or millions. Mehr, with her power, must grapple with this as she tries to figure a way out of her difficult situation — how can she do the right thing without hurting people or making their lives worse? It’s a nuanced discussion to be sure, and Suri handles it expertly.
Indeed, Suri uses dichotomy throughout the novel to demonstrate the world’s complexity. Mehr is from a very privileged, wealthy background, and yet she’s an outcast. She feels sorry for herself at the beginning of the book — but over its course, she comes to realize just how lucky she was, living in obscurity. This kind of character growth is characteristic of the attention to detail that you can see over and over again through this book.
At the same time, though, Empire of Sand manages to be entertaining from beginning to end; Suri is never too heavy-handed with the issues or the message she’s trying to get across. It’s a lush, consuming read that you can devour in one sitting. If you loved S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass (which is a FANGRRLS favorite), or if you haven’t read it but adore an intricate and fascinating fantasy setting with a complex and capable female character at its center, then Empire of Sand should be at the top of your list.