A storm is coming. Mehr, a young woman with mixed lineage: “barbarian” blood from her Amrithi mother’s side and Ambhan blood from her father’s side. While she has stayed virtually hidden her whole 19-20 year-old life, the presence of a daiva (a mysterious “creature” of the gods) in the form of a little bird changes everything. It signifies the presence of a storm where dreamfire will fall. The gods will dream. But when Mehr walks out into the storm to dance the Rite of Dreaming, she makes her presence known.
Soon after she is all but forced into an arranged marriage with a mysterious man whose entire face (save the eyes) is always covered — Amun. She soon discovers that he too is Amrithi. He and his people take her to a place with shifting sands and a beautiful oasis in the heat of the desert. Here lives the Maha. He wants Mehr and Amun to dance the Rite of Binding so that he and the Empire can prosper. With this Rite, Mehr and Amun can twist the dreams of the gods to their will. But Mehr wants to get away from all of this. Except she is essentially chained by the Maha, a person who is more monster than anything.
Empire of Sand is a novel full of beautiful prose, strong characters, a compelling plot, and some of the strongest pacing I’ve read this year. There’s a strong sense of movement in this book, too. The Amrithi are characterized by it — constantly moving around, mostly for necessity’s sake. They have Rites or dances in which magic flows through them. For example, one Rite can cause desert sand to become fertile soil for a brief moment. In contrast, the Ambhan are more characterized by immobility. Living a “proper” Ambhan life, Mehr hardly (if ever) left her father’s palace, staying mainly in the Women’s Quarters. Amun is literally chained by his vows to the Maha, and Mehr is partially chained to the Maha through her marriage to Amun. This juxtaposition really drives the novel forward in a subtle way.
Much of the magic and world-building was inspired by Hindu beliefs and traditions. Nothing seems forced or overdone; everything flows naturally. The characters are such that they could be real people. Their joys and concerns become your own. In the end, this was a book that I could hardly put down, and there’s a very strong possibility it will be on my top books of the year.
[I received an e-galley from the publisher via NetGalley.]