|Cover design by Lauren Panepinto|
Orbit, 14 November 2019
PB, e, 454pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Realm of Ash to consider for review.
Realm of Ash follows on from Empire of Sand, published last year although - and I found this rather welcome - it doesn't just take forward the story of Mehr, who was central to the earlier book. Instead it follows the life of Mehr's sister Arwa, skipping forward a number of years.
While Mehr chose to follow her Amrithi ancestry in defiance of the ruling Empire of Ambha, a desire that led her into the hands of the centuries-old spiritual leader known as the Maha, Arwa, we find, instead sought to suppress her heritage, trying to become an obedient, honourable member of Ambhan society.
We thus get quite a different perspective from that in Empire of Sand. Instead of rebellion and outright repression, Arwa's story is one of internal struggle, of self disgust at her Amrithi blood and - coaxed by her father's new wife - of her attempts to be "better" than that blood. As the book opens, Arwa is a widow, travelling to a distant hermitage to regroup after a horrific experience. Yet she's got no plans for rebellion or escape. Yes, Mehr has secrets, but they're about self-preservation and keeping those around her safe, rather than defiance. That makes, perhaps, for a slower start to a book than if this was all about rebellion and opposition. An introspective, more nuanced start, rather than one of blazing action (although that does come!).
It also makes this a fascinating and convincing study of an oppressed woman. Arwa's culture, her birthright, has been traduced and stripped from her, leaving only the ways of the invader. Her people are persecuted and her sister dead. Arwa is anxious to "pass", to earn a little bit of respect, of regard - something made harder, in a deeply patriarchal society, by her widowhood.
Try as she might, she is still, though, an outsider, a stranger and is reduced, eventually, to offering her very blood to nurture the Empire that enslaves her. All is not well for the Empire, after the events of Empire of Sand, though it has not fallen overnight - and again Suri departs a bit from the template of heroic fantasy by portraying this decay and the dangers it presents. The wounded beast may be a greater threat than the monster was when intact: following the Maha's death, and the misfortunes that arose for the Empire and its people, there are heresy hunts, military campaigns against the indigenous people, and power struggles at Court. 'Court has talons' as one character tells Arwa - and indeed, she is soon plunged into a heady whirl of politics, forbidden magic and suspicion.
I really enjoyed how Suri portrays Arwa, a woman wracked by internal conflict and fear who cannot, must not, allow anyone to see what she's going through. The story of someone who sets out to uphold an Empire may not sound as sexy as a tale of rebels and revolutionaries but please believe me, Tasha Suri weaves a taut, exciting narrative. It's never more so than when Arwa, or the born-the-wrong-side-of-the-sheets prince, Zahir, for whom she's obliged to work, seems to be close to removing the curse that is on Ambha. Will all Mehr's sacrifices be undone by her own people's inherited magic?
So - an evil. oppressive Empire but seen from the inside, with real passion, real determination yoked to its preservation because - in these disordered times - people are suffering, starving, dying and they need help. There is genuine moral conflict and tension here as a submerged heritage fights with the imperative to earn respect and honour, and an urge to maintain the familiar, even if that brings risks.
The book has brilliantly realised characters, a morally complex setup, a wonderfully constructed society based on Mughal India - and also a dash of romance (tricky, given the hierarchical and sexist constraints of that society). And of course, also magic, the sometimes glimpsed, sometimes felt twilight of the daiva with whom the Amrithi share a history.
I loved Empire of Sand. I adored Realm of Ash. Frankly, I just can't wait to see what Tasha Suri brings us next.
For more about Realm of Ash, see the publisher's website here.