Tasha Suri first introduced us to the world of Ambha with Empire of Sand (2018), a bejeweled epic about consent, kindness, and heritage, set in a world inspired by Mughal-ruled India, where ancient gods sleep beneath desert sands and their mortal descendants dance the stuff of god-dreams into magic and worship. Now, Suri takes us back to Ambha with Realm of Ash, an equally lush and tender narrative that acts as a fascinating dark mirror to Empire of Sand.
Arwa is many things to many people. Abandoned daughter, her mother having left to return to her people when Arwa was a babe. Abandoned sibling, her older sister Mehr having been mysteriously stolen away scant years later. Noble widow, her husband having been recently slain in a massacre at the fort he commanded. And herself survivor—sole survivor—of that massacre.
Like her sister Mehr (the protagonist of Empire), Arwa has been raised in a world where one half of her heritage is fraught with expectation, and the other half is a shameful secret. Their mother was one of the Amrithi, mortal descendants of the djinn-like beings known as daiva, first children of the gods. Reviled by an Empire bent on stamping out as much of the supernatural as it can, and binding into service what it cannot, the Amrithi have been whittled down by centuries of persecution till all that remains of their bloodline is a few nomadic tribes.
Arwa had been taught from infancy what it meant to have Amrithi blood. Cursed, her [step]mother had called her—out of love, Arwa had known it was out of love. Tainted.
Amrithi were heathens. Barbarians. Blood worshippers. To be Amrithi was to be abhorred by good Ambhan people. To be Amrithi was to bring danger down on the family. […] When Mehr revealed her heritage in some foolish way, the Maha’s mystics had come for her, taken her away to his temple upon the sands. (p. 59)
Mehr and Arwa’s father, on the other hand, is an Ambhan noble—somewhat fallen from grace by the time of Realm, which makes it all the more important for Arwa, his sole remaining daughter, to restore the family’s fortunes through an advantageous marriage.
Mehr chose her Amrithi heritage, refusing to conform to what Ambhan noble society expected of her—even when that rebellion cost her dearly. And it wasn’t just Mehr who paid that price, but also Arwa, who was left bereft of both mother and sister. Raised by a grieving father and an Ambhan stepmother, Arwa makes the choice Mehr did not and throws her all into being the dutiful wife and noble daughter her family wants her to be. She locks away her emotions and desires to present a façade of feminine modesty, consents to an arranged marriage, and then does her best to be what her husband needs her to be—despite knowing all the while that they are not suited to each other and that he knows it, too. That there is a kernel of something angry and unmannerly at her core that no amount of genteel deception can conceal.
Arwa had been obedient. Faithful. Good. And if she had yearned as a foolish girl to be the Arwa she was not—the Arwa who was everything she had been taught not to be, free and fierce and faithless and Amrithi—she had learned long ago to put that childish want aside. (p. 61)
All of this comes crashing down when Arwa’s husband’s fort is attacked by a strange, daiva-like creature that has come in from the desert. Every living soul within the fort is slaughtered, all except Arwa, who is saved by the appearance of a second daiva. The daiva protect Amrithi when they find them, recognizing them as their mortal descendants. Arwa, raised with almost no connection to her Amrithi heritage, misinterprets this as a dangerous creature being drawn to her cursed Amrithi blood.
Arwa was cursed, in the blood, in a way she could not deny any longer. Her blood had brought the daiva to Darez Fort. But it had also saved her life. (p. 61)
The slaughter at Darez Fort is only one example of a streak of bad luck that has been plaguing the empire in recent years. The Maha—founder of the empire and its very first emperor in ages past, immortal mystic and magician who has continued to watch over his enthroned descendants from the shadows for centuries—perished under mysterious circumstances soon after he stole Mehr away to his temple in the desert. In the wake of his death came a tide of bad luck for the Empire: bandits, civil unrest, raised taxes and hungry people, strange outbreaks of fear and bloodlust. Rumors ran through the Empire like wildfire: displeased gods, a curse placed upon the empire, daivas turning on humans.
It’s in the midst of this storm of misfortune and paranoia that Arwa, newly widowed, all chances of restoring her family’s fortunes dead with her husband, gropes for a purpose to her life. That purpose comes in the form of a bastard son of the Emperor who is attempting, through researching occult arts, to break the curse that seems to have been placed on the Empire. Research that will be aided by an Amrithi assistant—with Amrithi blood to contribute to his experiments.
It’ll mean Arwa throwing herself into the deadly snakepit of the Emperor’s court, revealing her Amrithi heritage to people who could have her killed with a word. And Arwa, who has spent her whole life trying to make herself useful to a world that disdains her—to prove her loyalty to an Empire that calls her cursed—jumps at the chance.
The daiva follow me. Darez Fort follows me. I can’t run any farther from what lies in my blood. Send me to your mistress. Let me offer my cursed blood to her curiosity and her cause. […] I am not being foolish. I am attempting to be useful. Is that not what we are taught from birth, Aunt? To serve the Empire—to be loyal and dutiful, to offer our service to the Empire’s glory—there is no higher purpose, surely? (p. 71)
There’s a lot to love about Suri’s work, but chief among them is the compassion with which she treats her characters. Even when the reader knows very well that Arwa is being foolish and naïve, that her quest to prove herself and please the people who hold power over her isn’t going to end well, the anguish and the sincerity of her motives cuts so keenly across the page it’s impossible not to empathize with her. Like its predecessor, Empire, this book is an ode to not-belonging, and it will be gently, terribly, heart-warmingly familiar to anyone who’s been caught between two worlds—whether biracial, immigrant, diaspora, or otherwise. Suri fills her books with complicated women who work in, around, and against each other, drawing on real history to paint a picture of the ways in which women exercise power and exert influence within the confines of a patriarchal world.
While we’re making comparisons to Empire, it’s worth noting that Suri has a knack for writing positive models of masculinity—more specifically, gentle men who have chosen to be gentle despite suffering at the hands of a cruel world. Zahir, the bastard son of the Emperor who seeks to solve the mystery of the Maha’s death through occult arts, turns out to have a lot in common with Arwa: both condemned by the accident of their parentage to be seen as equal parts damned and dangerous, both struggling to prove their worth and their loyalty to people who would discard them in the blink of an eye. Arwa recognizes in Zahir a hunger for love and acceptance; Zahir recognizes in Arwa a burning rage and a sharp intellect. And so, what could have been an exploitative relationship unfolds, instead, as one marked by careful negotiations of informed consent and mutual respect.
Which is just as well, because the ground Zahir seeks to explore is teeming with danger. His research has led him to the existence of something called the realm of ash—a shadow realm that exists parallel to that of the waking world, populated by the charred and shifting fragments of the dead. Consuming the ash of the dead in this realm allows one to access some of their memories—at the risk of losing oneself.
Zahir’s plan is to retrace the line of his ancestors through the realm of ash, until he finds his way back to his oldest ancestor, the Maha. Then, by consuming the Maha’s ash, he will obtain knowledge both of what brought about the man’s death, and how to break the curse that has fallen on the Empire in its wake. But as he and Arwa explore the treacherous realm inch by painstaking inch, using Arwa’s blood to transport themselves there in sleep and keep their souls anchored to their living bodies, what they find, instead, is a far more horrific truth.
The truth of how the Maha forced enslaved Amrithi to twist the dreams of sleeping gods, granting his empire unnatural good luck and himself unnatural long life. The truth of how Arwa’s mother’s people have been sacrificed for generations to warp the tides of fate—and how that dam has broken with the Maha’s death, leaving the Empire to pay back a debt of bad luck it has been accumulating for a very long time.
The question of ancestral memory and how it relates to trauma and identity in marginalized people is such a very potent one, and I’m glad to see it being explored in more and more speculative fiction. Suri’s treatment of it here is as keen, tender, and careful as I have come to expect from this author, gently peeling back layers to expose the subtle horror at their root, taking time to acknowledge the many conflicting emotions her protagonist feels. Arwa’s deep hunger for a heritage she has been denied is palpable, as is the grief and pain that comes with the memories she finds in the realm of ash, and how close she comes to breaking under the weight of those centuries of atrocity.
What might be my favorite scene in the book is one that’s as brief as it is powerful. On the run from the royals who want to snuff out their lives to bury the dangerous truths they have uncovered, Arwa and Zahir make allies of an Ambhan soldier who later confesses to Arwa that his great-grandmother was Amrithi. This soldier, Sohal, has been raised with even less connection to his Amrithi heritage than Arwa has. And Arwa, realizing this, chooses to share some of what she has learned in the realm of ash—chooses, in her own words, to “give him a piece of himself back.”
She was no longer ignorant, she realized. No longer a woman shaped only by the emptiness within her history. She had her ash, and the knowledge it gave her was a gift.
He gave her a wide-eyed look. “You would teach me that?” he said wonderingly. “Me?”
“It is yours by right,” she said gently. “Just as much as it is mine.” (p. 388)
As a sourcelander, born and raised in India, I’ve never been separated from my heritage—and yet, raised by a mother who put me in an English-medium, western-modeled school and never bought me Bengali books because she (correctly) thought she was giving me an advantage in life by doing so, my connection to and feelings about that heritage are complicated, to say the least. I’m not ashamed to say this brief exchange almost moved me to tears, with its promise that it’s not too late to find the things you were denied. That they can try to stamp you out and erase you, but they will never succeed, because something will survive, and somewhere down the line, someone will share it with you. It may never be exactly the same as what it used to be, but it will live, and change, and survive.
The real genius of Suri’s storytelling skill, though, is in the narrative juxtaposition of Zahir and Arwa, and their separate yet shared quest for answers. Arwa seeks a heritage she has been denied; Zahir, illegitimate and outcast prince, seeks connection with the Maha, mythologized ancestor he has admired all his life. Both get what they wished for only to discover that it is far more vast and painful than they had dreamed, and both must then decide how to find a way forward. For Zahir, this may mean turning his back on the Maha and his legacy. For Arwa, it may mean learning to balance her grief, her fury, her pain, and the disorienting pull of other lives and other memories.
For both, however, it will mean forging a new path—one that is neither a slave to the past nor dictated by someone else’s vision of the future. And it will require them to lean on each other. If Realm of Ash has a lesson, it is this: that sorrow shared is sorrow halved, and that only by coming together can the dispossessed triumph against their oppressors.
I’ve saved the thing I loved most about this book for last, and it’s how angry it allows Arwa to be. She seethes on every page, and though her fury is sometimes buried to varying degrees under other competing emotions, it never ceases to be present. It’s deeply, remarkably cathartic to see a female protagonist simply allowed to be angry without the narrative ever once shaming her for it, asking her to compromise on her rage.
It’s even more remarkable that it never draws a false binary between anger and growth, or anger and progress, forcing her to choose. Arwa’s anger is tied inextricably to her capacity for love and her ability to move forward; the one fuels the other. If Empire of Sand was about kindness as resistance, Realm of Ash is about anger as allowed—and how anger gets things done. Which makes both books, I think, stories that we deeply, deeply need right now.
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