Realm of Ash (5*)

Book: Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Right, time for me to kick off the reviews for this year, by reviewing the book I choose as the best new book I read last year… Yeah, I know I am behind, I didn’t get much of anything other than work done towards the end of last year. Still, things are calmer now so I am hoping to get back into this properly this year. Going to aim to have two blog posts going up a week, so let’s see how I get on!

RoAEver since I read Empire of Sand – 5*, Tasha’s debut novel, I have been pretty excited about the follow-up (they are both in the same universe and each follow a sister’s story, but they are mostly separate with the second having some spoilers for the events of the first one).

A second novel is often described as a tricky beast by many authors, you are expected to produce something better than the first one in a lot less time and that’s quite a bit of pressure to be under. So I was extremely pleased to find out that this book more than lived up to my expectations of it.

As I mentioned above, the plot follows the sister of the main character from the first book, she’s a young widow, the survivor of a massacre that took the life of her husband and she’s trying to deal with all that she has been through whilst finding how to cope with her changed circumstances and what they mean because of the restrictions of the society (widows are not permitted to marry again).

She finds herself working closely with the Emperor’s illegitimate son to try and find a way to break the curse on the Empire, to do so they must explore the Realm of Ash, uncovering secrets about both of their heritages on the way.

So without spoilering anything, a lot of what I loved about the book is how well it portrays a lot of things. The main character, Arwa, is a pent up ball of rage from all that has happened to her and it just made so much sense to me. Between having to pretend to be someone she wasn’t during her marriage, to being at a massacre and surviving it alone to now being trapped in a life of prayer when you are barely 20 and are not ever meant to have anything else other than that… I mean, the lack of choice and agency she has over her own life is certainly something that would turn me into a ball of rage.

It may not be a feeling that everyone who reads it has experienced, but there is a claustrophobic sense of being trapped. Not physically, but by societal expectations, by trying to fit yourself into who you are told you are supposed to be. It’s not an uncommon thing to experience when you present as female and it is absolutely horrible. That feeling came across really strongly to me, so strongly that at points the book makes it difficult for you to breathe. I don’t say this as criticism, I found the fact that the book conjured it to be really powerful.

There are other themes in the book it’s harder for me to talk about, because I am coming at them from a position of someone they are not going to affect. For example, Arwa is the product of two cultures, she’s been brought up and taught to supress the heritage she got from her mother, to regard it as bad, as inferior, and that plays an important part in her story as she has to come to terms with what she has been taught and what that means in her life now.

The Realm of Ash that the book is named for is also an amazing concept which she describes impeccably. It’s a way of travelling into people’s memories and the descriptions are beautiful, eerie and incredibly evocative. The whole thing is not particularly like anything I have come across before. I had thought the dance magic in the first book was amazing, this is even better. It also works wonderfully as a way to not only advance the plot, but also the character development of the two main characters and their blossoming romance (and don’t scream spoilers at me for mentioning the romance, it’s a fantasy romance novel and they are the main characters so I mean, it pretty much goes without saying).

Talking about the romance, I loved that as well. I am a big fan of slow burn romances, I get fed up with people who seem to fall in love at the drop of a hat despite knowing nothing at all about the other person. Honestly, if I haven’t stayed up till 3am bearing my soul to someone then they don’t really have much of a chance with me, so I struggle to relate to how it could be possible to love someone you don’t really know. I am sure physical attraction at first sight is a thing for some people, but I struggle to accept that it could honestly be love without a deeper understanding.

But I do love reading about that learning process as people get to know each other, find common ground and you can see where and how they fall for each other. This was done really well in this case and I love seeing the connections form, even through difficult circumstances and the whole thing melts your heart quite nicely.

I adore Tasha’s work and I am not sure what is coming next from her or when, but you better believe I will be buying it, reading it and hopefully recommending it to everyone I know!

Empire of Sand – 5*

Books: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

I have been wanting to read this book since I found out about it at FantasyCon and was lucky enough to meet the author and chat to her a bit. Sadly I missed out on picking up one of the five advanced copies they had on sale, but was lucky enough to get one at SFXCon on the 10th, so a few days before it’s actual release on the 15th.

I’ve been reading quite a few debut novels lately and I am very much enjoying this as you get to see such promise in them and they are often a breath of fresh air, something new and different to read, and Empire of Sand definitely meets that promise. One of the reasons I was so keen to read it was because I found out it was based on the Mughal Empire of India.

Now in case you start thinking that you can’t possibly relate to a story from a culture not your own, this story is a very human tale of love, loss, family, despair and hope and there is plenty for you to relate to, even if the culture it is based on is not your own. It’s not my culture but I absolutely adored this books.

The language does an excellent job of making you envision the world, I had a really good idea of what everything looked like in my head as the story swept me along with it. I loved the characters too, especially the fact that they get quite a lot of development time and the motivations felt very real, even those of the antagonist.

One of the things I loved was that the book does get quite dark in places, there is some nasty violence particularly towards women (though no sexual assault) and in places it also deals with forms of slavery and lack of free will. Despite this, the book never loses its sense of hope and the characters never entirely lose their agency either. None of the violence feels gratuitous or done just for effect either, it has a point in the story and also real consequences for the characters.

I read a lot of books with female protagonists and one of the reasons I loved Mehr in this book is that she is not a fighter, she doesn’t kickass through everyone who tries to hurt her, but she doesn’t need to do so to be strong. Her courage in getting through dark times, in trying to protect her family and those she loves is wonderful to behold and her own journey of realising what she is capable of and her place in the world is fantastic.

Well I have gushed quite a lot so far on the book so did I think there were any issues with it? To be honest I have only one minor niggle. There is a bit early on in the book where the main character details that men get to remove their marriage sigil at a certain point, though it’s clear she doesn’t know when and then later on she gasps when someone removes his when he hasn’t earned it. There is an explanation then of how she found that out, but it still felt jarring as where she learned it is skipped and so that scene didn’t quite work for me.

But seriously, I can’t really think of anything else bad to say about the book, it’s better than many books I have read that were someone’s third or fourth books, let alone being their first.

Having read the brief blurb about the second book in this series you can be guaranteed I will be awaiting the next instalment with baited breath.