Fantasy worlds in print are getting ever more diverse, but the worldbuilding here is lackluster.
Even while it seems that “Game of Thrones” and its literary inspiration, A Song of Ice and Fire, has come to dominate popular culture in 2019 in a way that no fantasy fiction ever has before, there has been a marked and growing shift in fantasy literature itself away from the sort of broad, masculine, pseudo-European stories of which Martin’s epic is the apotheosis. Fantasy worlds in print are getting ever more diverse, and not just in geographical setting—moving ever south and east from Europe as the cultural referent—but also in time, into worlds that are technologically on par with the early modern, industrial or even atomic ages of human history.
Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, her debut novel as well as the first in her “The Books of Ambha” series, highlights many of the features of this broader trend. It is set in a fantasy world based geographically and culturally on South Asia, features a single female protagonist and is wholly untethered to anything resembling the thirteenth-century Europe that seems fundamental to the popular fantasy fiction of Martin, Brooks and Tolkien.
Empire of Sand follows Mehr, the illegitimate daughter of a colonial governor stationed in the distant province of Irinah (modelled on real-life Punjab). Her exiled mother was Amrithi, the ethnic group that is indigenous to Irinah but which has been systemically discriminated against by the Ambhans, who are the dominant and ruling ethnic group of the Ambhan Empire. Mehr is half of each ethnicity, which makes her life in the governor’s palace awkward, particularly because her stepmother, a full-blooded Ambhan, resents her.
This awkwardness leads Mehr to step out of bounds and more or less ignore rules and the advice of her parents. Her reckless rebelliousness comes to a head when the magical element of Suri’s world reveals itself: Irinah faces magical storms of dreamfire which contain powerful spirits and possibilities. Mehr shows that she can communicate with the dreamfire, which is a rare genetic trait of some Amrithi. Unfortunately for her, the Maha—the immortal spiritual leader of the Empire—requires Amrithi with the dreamfire gift to ensure that the Empire continues to prosper. He sends his representatives to manipulate imperial customs and law in order to essentially kidnap Mehr and force her into servitude in his distant temple far in the desert of Irinah.
Empire of Sand works fine as a story, but it is not as compelling as many of the other new fantasy novels portraying non-European settings. Most of this is due to Suri’s focus on the inner life of Mehr, whose thoughts and misgivings take up far too many of the words in the book. Mehr is wracked by fear, doubt and a lack of information, which is certainly crucial to the plot but Suri is very repetitive: at least four times she summarizes Mehr’s feelings on a particular problem in paragraph-long asides on three consecutive pages. But the repetitions are not the only issue with this emphasis. Another problem is that Mehr is just not a very interesting character to climb inside and get to know. She is sheltered (and therefore ignorant), arrogantly stubborn and too rash. Readers are left under-informed and neither trusting nor respecting the nominal hero.
This leads into the main reason why Empire of Sand does not quite stand alongside the works of Jemisin, Chakraborty, Bear and Sanderson, the latter of whom also features a book series (The Stormlight Archive) in a fantastical world wracked by magical storms. Specifically, the worldbuilding here is lackluster. Suri does very little to show readers the world or customs. Even after 436 pages, very obvious questions remain regarding what the terrain and buildings look like, what people eat, how they dress, what language(s) they speak to each other, what people do for a living, what the political structure looks like, what relations are like with the rest of the world and on and on. No book is ever going to answer every question fully, but Suri is not even trying here; readers do not even get a full picture of what dreamfire is like, the dynamics of how the Maha has maintained influence or other foundational elements of the story. Irinah is endless desert, the Maha’s acolytes wear plain brown robes and they eat flatbread; none of that is very compelling, but J. K. Rowling wrote about a gray castle with kids dressed in plain black robes eating British food (the least interesting food) and made it crackle and sizzle with life. Certainly, centering the entire story on a cloistered girl imprisoned in the far corner of a vast empire limits some of the possibilities for exposition (though this is a choice Suri made!), but Sanderson has set most of the action in his Stormlight Archive on narrow-minded characters fighting a war in one of the least compelling corners of his fantasy world with undeniable success.
One only marginally interesting book should not sink Tasha Suri for readers and the second installment of the Books of Ambha series, Realm of Ash, is coming before Christmas. Here is hoping that Suri corrects the worldbuilding deficiencies of Empire of Sand and that Mehr manages to grow, Sansa Stark-like, from a spoiled teenager into a woman worthy of reader’s attention, because this wave of new fantasy needs to continue to grow with more exciting creators.