Have you ever wanted to read a fantasy set in a land inspired by the Mughal Empire, with magic that is performed through dance? Then do I have a book for you!
I requested an ARC for Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand based on the cover alone. The dagger against the red background was so striking, and the title put me in mind of City of Brass, so I thought I was in for some Arab-influenced fantasy. When I started reading and realized the main character’s magic was clearly inspired by Bharatanatyam dance, I saw that I was in for something else altogether!
Empire of Sand is told primarily from a close third person point of view focused on the main character, Mehr. The illegitimate daughter of the Governor of a province within the empire, Mehr is privileged and sheltered, but her life is not without its stresses. Mehr’s mother was exiled from the city, leaving her daughters behind, and the Governor’s new wife is determined to raise Mehr’s younger sister as a proper young lady with no connection to their mother’s tribe. Mehr, meanwhile, remembers her mother and still hews to the traditions of her people, including her ritual dance.
Through a series of events that I won’t get into too much detail on, Mehr finds herself forcefully betrothed to a member of a normally celibate mystic order. For magical reasons, they can’t consummate their marriage but have to pretend they did, and I thought I was going to be in for some really hot slow-burn, will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension. Suri chose not to take it in such an erotic direction, but there’s still a lot of tension over what will happen if their ruse is discovered.
There’s also a lot of great scenes of the two characters training for ritual dance together.
Seriously, if you’re a dancer or someone who enjoys dance, you’ve got to read this book! I loved the descriptions of the body postures, and the exhaustion of training. I have only passing familiarity with Classical Indian dance, but I know enough to picture the postures and dress in my mind. Suri really does an excellent job of painting a mental image with her words.
Mehr and her husband Amun find themselves up against an immortal cult leader, essentially, and his acolytes. The stakes are high — their future, and the future of the empire. I honestly wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out, and I like when a book keeps me guessing. There were a few moments that shocked me.
One thing that I liked about this book was that while there was conflict and the fate of the nation at play, it still felt very character driven. By keeping the focus tightly on Mehr, with a few chapters from other POVs occasionally, it avoids overwhelming the reader with too many characters and plot lines. The stakes are epic in scale, but this isn’t an “epic fantasy” doorstopper of a novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but I’m reading one right now and I find that I’m missing the more focused nature of most of what I’ve been reading lately. There’s something to be said for a well-contained story.
While Empire of Sand wraps up its plot in a single novel, Mehr’s actions have potentially world-changing repercussions. There’s at least one more novel set in this world planned, following Mehr’s sister Arwa. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what happens next, and discovering more of this world.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an Advanced Reader Copy of this book!