Sunday 12 May 2019

Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand is a debut novel set in a fantasy empire of deserts and djinn-like spirits. Mehr, the daughter of the Governor of a city near the edge of the Empire, lives a life both pampered and persecuted. Her stepmother hates her and tries to keep her away from her little sister, while her father is a largely distant figure, indulging and protecting her through his station, but barely part of her life. She has no peers and only two loved ones in her life: her little sister, and a courtesan who teaches her ritual dancing.

Mehr is mixed race, her natural mother having belonged to a nomadic people who have a different religion. Having been brought up with the beliefs and rituals of those nomads, Mehr doesn't really fit in the Empire, which persecutes her mother's people. Then, things come to a head: a magical storm sweeps over the city,  oppressors arrive to round up  and slaughter the people of nomadic origin, and Mehr's loved ones are endangered.

Blood is shed. Mehr uses her inherited magic. And then the mystics arrive to take her away...

Empire of Sand has a beautiful cover. It was written by a smart, likeable author (who happens to be a librarian in one of my alma maters). It promises an intriguing setting, being inspired by Mughal India. Unfortunately, it's also one of those novels that's utterly joyless.

Mehr's lot in life is to be privileged and persecuted. Oppressed, violated, exploited, but a princess. The novel features a sort-of-romance that is especially rape-y and icky, but then, pretty much every "tortured bad boy" character and every Stockholm-Syndrome romance fills me with disgust, so this may be one thing that some lady-readers might feel differently about.

Add some villains who are hateful and sadistic but not really enjoying themselves, a good sprinkling of genocide, and a heavy dose of self-pity (and/or self-loathing) in all the vaguely good guys, and you end up with a novel that just drags itself on hands and knees through its desert scenery, bereft of life-giving water, humour and joy. It's a bit like grinding one's face against a cheesegrater: it flakes away little strands of happiness without ever getting boring enough to give up or exciting enough for me to really want to know what happens next.

It's one of those everything-is-bleak, people-are-shit novels, with an exotic setting. Not quite grimdark (because grimdark novels have less self-pitying and more cynically ruthless heroes), but not exactly the right book to read to escape from a crappy reality.

Rating: 3/5

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