In her debut novel Empire of Sand, Tasha Suri draws on the history of India’s Mughal Empire to create a story both claustrophobically personal and as large as civilizations. The story focuses on Mehr, the illegitimate daughter of a governor of the Ambhan empire. In his posting in the conquered province of Irinah, Mehr’s father fell in love with a woman of a desert-dwelling nomadic people called the Amrithi. She bore him two daughters before returning to the desert, but not before she instructed the elder, Mehr, in the dance, ritual, and magic of her people (her sister Arwa was too young for such learnings).
In the decade or so since her mother’s leaving, the Amrithi people have become a hunted minority, dragged from their homes and murdered at the whim of the emperor. A friend of her mother’s, another Amrithi woman, continues Mehr’s instruction in the magic of their people. Mehr and Arwa live in cocooned exile within their own home, their own country, relying on the Ambhan heritage of their father to protect them from their mother’s Amrithi blood.
It all comes down to blood: the Amrithi are gifted with the blood of the gods through their progeny, the daiva. The gods are asleep, but the daiva—creatures not unlike Japanese kami or the Celtic fae—still exist in the world, only coming into something like power during the storms of dreamfire that boil through the desert. (Mehr’s city is on the edge of desert, so these storms pass through only every couple years.) Like wild animals, the daiva are beautiful and dangerous, but they are also sentient and magical—making them doubly so. As an Amrithi, Mehr can turn the daiva away during the falling dreamfire; they recognize the power in her blood. Her heritage is both dangerous and protective.
We first meet Mehr after she’s been summoned by nervous servants: her sister is terrified of a daiva roosting in her window. Mehr banishes the creature, a curious and gentle bird creature, then tucks her sister in with stories of their Amrithi heritage. Mehr knows this comforting will be punished—their Ambhan step-mother has claimed Mehr’s sister as her own child, both because Arwa is young enough to be malleable, and because she takes after her light-skinned father. Arwa can pass; Mehr cannot.
Mehr’s sequestered life changes during a dreamfire storm, the first in years. Her mother’s friend—Mehr’s mentor—is exposed as Amrithi, and men come seeking to do her harm. Mehr goes out into the storm, using her magic to aid her friend, and in doing so, exposes herself as well. She attracts the attention of the Maha, the spiritual leader of the Ambhan empire, and its founder several centuries previous. He is a man of devastating magic: apparently immortal, and capable of barbarous cruelty unto genocide in his drive to expand his empire. Even Mehr’s father is terrified of the Maha.
A forced marriage follows, to an Amrithi man who is one of the Maha’s mystics, and a jorney deep into the desert where the Maha lives in an impossible oasis, surrounded by a prayerful order whose rituals help fuel his power. Mehr has been called to serve him, performing a bastardized version of an Amrithi rites whenever the dreamfire falls. The Maha is a cruel and exacting man, and sets to breaking Mehr down wholly and completely. Mehr’s small acts of defianc are treated with truly barbaric reprisals as she is slowly and surely pushed to perform his corrupt magic.
Empire of Sand tells an intensely personal story of empire, from the perspective of a member of a persecuted minority who is nevertheless absolutely vital to the continuing supremacy of a cruel and expansionist order. It is a study in contrasts: the sweep of history resolved down into a beaten girl on her hands and knees before a despot, and dancing out her inherent power and magic in a storm built by the dreams of the gods themselves. Mehr is both Ambahn and Amrithi, and his empire, the Empire of Sand, built by the former with the blood of the latter, turns on that uneasy pivot. Some of the novel’s lessons could be considered trite, without the harsh crucible Mehr must endure, or the almost painfully intimate relationships that are born from the Maha’s exacting cruelty. Love is as precious as empire, and more dangerous. This is a remarkable first novel.