Book: “Realm of Ash” by Tasha Suri
Publication Info: Orbit, November 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!
Book Description: The Ambhan Empire is crumbling. A terrible war of succession hovers on the horizon. The only hope for peace lies in the mysterious realm of ash, where mortals can find what they seek in the echoes of their ancestors’ dreams. But to walk there requires a steep price.
Arwa is determined to make the journey. Widowed by a brutal massacre, she’s pledged service to the royal family and will see that pledge through to the end. She never expected to be joined by Zahir, the disgraced, illegitimate prince who has turned to forbidden magic in a desperate bid to save those he loves.
Together, they’ll walk the bloody path of their shared past. And it will call into question everything they’ve ever believed…including whether the Empire is worth saving at all.
Previously Reviewed: “Empire of Sand”
Review: While I had some struggles with “Empire of Sand,” I was intrigued enough by the world-building and fantasy elements presented in that first book to be pleased when I was sent a copy of its sequel. I hadn’t looked into this book before hand, but was happy to find that it wasn’t a direct sequel and instead picked up the story years later following Arwa. I was even more happy when I closed the book and could look back with satisfaction on a sequel that I felt surpassed its predecessor.
All of Arwa’s carefully crafted plans for life, that of a good nobleman’s wife who is loyal to family and the Empire, crash around her in tragedy and death. Now, a young widow with secrets swirling around her, Arwa looks to re-orient her life in service of some larger purpose. To do this, she is asked to work along side the illegitimate prince, a young man who has risked much in his own quest to save all he cares for. But in their theorizing and study, Arwa and Zahir begin to question all that they have learned and must decide what truths shall guide them going forward.
I re-read my review for “Empire of Sand” before writing this review, and it was an interesting experience. For one, I had forgotten much of that book, which I guess makes sense considering one of my biggest complaints had to do with my coming away from it with a very “meh” attitude. It’s no wonder that I forgot many of the details if that was what I thought at the time! (I’ll just add here that given that I remembered so little of the first book, it’s safe to say that while reading that one can add elements to the enjoyment of this book, it’s by no means necessary for understanding it or becoming engaged in the story its trying to tell.) But it was also noting the other things that I noted in that book and how they directly correlated with why this one was a stronger read for me.
For one, while I did like Mehr and had few complaints with her, even in my review I noted that I enjoyed her interactions with Arwa. Being the much younger sister with no real memories of their mother, Arwa was less in the position to straddled worlds than Mehr and also had a closer relationship with their stepmother. I was very happy to discover that it was her story we were reading here. While Arwa has the same mixed heritage as Mehr, she was raised as a traditional daughter of the Empire. Her mother and her now long-lost sister and the heritage and culture they both represented have been largely missing from Arwa’s life for some time. But when the tragedy that kills her husband spares her own life, we see Arwa begin taking steps down her own path to self-discovery. It’s an interesting one, too, given that she begins her arc from a completely different position than Arwa. Her original goal is to nothing more than serve the Empire. When she discovers truths about her own people and the Empire itself, she begins to see her own life and those around her through very different eyes.
One of the main challenges I referenced in my review of the first book was in the awkward position it put itself in with needing to straddle the lines between adult fantasy and YA. Much of the pacing and detailed world building fell more inline with the former, but some of the character beats were strikingly familiar to those found in many YA fantasies of the time. This book had a few moments that were similar…why do these character have to immediately feel heart flutters or having unwilling attractions to the romantic interest in the very first meeting?? I’ll never understand why this is done or felt to be needed. For a book that takes such time setting up its world, cultures, and political motivations, the author is clearly trusting readers to stick around for the ride. But when the romance comes along, what? They think readers are going to bounce if the heroine isn’t immediately noting some level of attraction?
But! That little side-vent aside, I found that this book seemed much more settled as a straight-up fantasy, not dedicated to YA. Arwa is a bit older and is a widowed young woman to boot. While her first marriage was not a love match, she’s still not an idealistic teen raging against the world, but a young woman who has lived in the world (though this, too, was limited by the conservative nature of her marriage). Overall, it felt like there were noticeably fewer beats that hailed from YA fantasy, and the book felt more comfortable in its own skin.
The pacing was still rather slow, however. But here, too, much of the work laid down in the first book helped make these depictions feel more natural as they were only laying more on top of a foundation that had already been built. I particularly enjoyed the added fantasy elements and the court politics that come to play.
In the end, I came away from this book much more satisfied than I had with the first. As a whole, it felt more complete and self-assured. I found Arwa’s arc to be more compelling with its exploration of grief and new love, ostracization and self-acceptance. Fans of the first book are sure to be pleased with this one. And, while made stronger by being read after that book, I think it can still be an approachable read for new fantasy-loving readers as well. And, of course, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC copy of the book!
Rating 8: A stronger outing than the first and a heroine who is equally, if not more, compelling!
“Realm of Ash” is on this Goodreads lists: “2019 Adult SFF by Authors of Color.”
Find “Realm of Ash” at your library using WorldCat!