Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri. ★★★1/2
TW: forced marriage, threat of sexual assault
I have a complicated relationship with Empire of Sand. On one hand, it’s a very good book, maybe not quite on the level with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it gives me similar vibes. On the other hand, Empire of Sand uses tropes that just really don’t work for me. I actually learned more about what I prefer as a reader because of how uncomfortable the book made me!
In a fantasy world inspired by Mughal India, Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi woman. The Amrithi are a nomadic, desert people who are heavily discriminated against and have unique magical abilities. Mehr’s privileged upbringing has isolated her from the worst of the Amrithi oppression, but when she comes to the attention of the Emperor and his mystics, they decide she is a tool for the betterment of the empire. If they took her outright, it would be an insult to the status of her father, so instead, they force her to marry Amun, an Amrithi man they have enslaved.
Empire of Sands creates an immersive fantasy world that feels real and distinct. I particularly loved the magic system and mythological background. The Amrithi are the descendants of spirits who are themselves the children of now-sleeping gods. Through “rites” (stylized dances), Amrithi can shape and change the world around them. This is the power Mehr is taken for.
Empire of Sands also excels in other aspects. The characters were well rounded, and Mehr is a courageous and intelligent heroine. The writing is beautiful as well as effective, and it never enters purple prose territory. I found the storyline and plotting gripping. While some other reviewers mentioned they found the pacing uneven, I didn’t have that experience.
But… Empire of Sand kept stressing me out so much that I repeatedly had to put the book down and walk away. I’m one hundred percent certain this is because of the forced marriage plotline and the constant threat of sexual violence hanging over Mehr. To cement their control over Mehr, the mystics need for Mehr and Amun to have sex (this is all because of magical reasons, okay?). Amun’s using the loophole of “they never said when this had to happen” to put it off, and he himself is being forced by the mystics.
Look, I knew from the moment that Amun showed up that he and Mehr would fall in love. Let’s be real, that’s almost always how arranged marriages in SFF work. And yes, Mehr in Amun fall in love, and judging by other reviews, most people like the romance. Empire of Sand is a story about romantic love saving the day, and the thematic material emphasizes reclaiming choice and respecting choice. Mehr might have been forced to get together with Amun, but she would have chosen him anyway, so she argues that this is her choice. Yes, she has a choice in how she views the situation, but what’s actually physically happening to her… ? And here’s the bigger problem: I kept putting myself in Mehr’s situation, and that’s how Empire of Sand unknowingly became a horror story. I am a sex-repulsed, asexual woman who’s only ever felt romantic attraction towards other women. Empire of Sand might be a book about reclaiming choices, but I would not have the same choices as Mehr or the romantic love/attraction to soften the violence being done to her. It didn’t help that the world and characters Empire of Sand presents are so resolutely straight and cis. The book does not contain a single line that leads me to believe queer people exist in this world.
Empire of Sand excels in many aspects, but the forced marriage plotline gave me so much anxiety. On the bright side, at least this showed me something about my own reading preferences, and I’ll know to avoid such plotlines in the future. But while a large part of my negative reaction to Empire of Sand is personal to me as a reader and not due to the book itself, I still have complicated feelings about the way sexual violence, the Mehr/Amun relationship, and the “choice” theme were handled. I feel like the narrative doesn’t acknowledge that Mehr as a heterosexual woman has “choices” that other women don’t. The same could be said about her lack of mental illness, at least at the beginning of the novel.
I don’t have an end verdict on Empire of Sand. If forced marriage plotlines don’t bother you, then yes, it’s a book I would recommend. But I don’t think I would recommend it to other ace readers, or maybe even readers who aren’t straight.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.