Book Review : Realm of Ash

This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Book Review : Realm of AshRealm of Ash (The Books of Ambha, #2) by Tasha Suri
Published by Orbit on November 12th 2019
Pages: 480
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The fate of an empire rests in the hands of a young woman with magical blood and nothing left to lose, and an outcast prince determined to save his family at any cost, in this "dark, melodious, and memorable" new fantasy (Library Journal, starred review) from the author of the award-winning Empire of Sand.
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.
"Those with a penchant for lyrical prose, intricate world building, beautifully imagined characters, compelling immersive folklore...need look no further." -- Booklist (starred review)
The Books of AmbhaEmpire of SandRealm of Ash

Realm of Ash is the worthy follow up to its predecessor Empire of Sand. Though I did not enjoy Realm of Ash quite as much as Empire of Sand, I was so happy to return to the beautiful world the author created in her first novel. I just wasn’t quite as captivated by Realm of Ash as I was in the first novel–I was not as invested in the love story, was irritated with all the court politics, and was disappointed that there was not more of a reunion between the two sisters, Mehr and Arwa.  Despite this, Realm of Ash is beautifully written, has well-developed characters, and deals with very important themes, such as accepting all the parts of one’s self and the pain from love.


“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.”


Realm of Ash follows Mehr’s younger sister, Arwa, a young widow. Raised to hide and fear her Amrithi side in an attempt to pass as full Ambhan, Arwa constantly struggles with her identity. Though as a lady, she is supposed to be meek and gentle, and as a widow she is supposed to spend the rest of her days with shorn hair, mourning her husband, Arwa is anything but a quiet, respectful lady.  She is constantly struggling to control her bluntness, her anger, and to figure out her place in the world. She finds she does not belong in the hermitage to mourn her husband, and as the sole survivor of an infamous massacre with mysterious power in her blood, she soon catches the eyes of the Emperor’s daughter. Arwa winds up at court, surprised by the cutthroat machinations of politics that surround her new home. 


“Arwa knew how strange it was, the thing her blood had done. Her blood had drawn the daiva to her. Her blood had saved her. There was cure and curse tangled inside her. That was worth a great deal, in these harrowing times of blight.”


She is even more surprised to join the bastard-born son of the emperor, Zahir, in his secret quest to free the empire from its curse and to return it from his former glory, having no idea of the role her own sister, Mehr, played in it. As she swallows more and more of the ash of her Amrithi ancestors, Arwa realizes there is so much more to her heritage than she ever realized. Her journey to this discovery and acceptance of her roots and sense of self is really beautiful and touching.


“It is a strange grief, Lord Zahir, to live when others die, for no reason but your blood, a thing quite beyond your control. Strange and… difficult. If I were a man, I would give my grief a purpose, and to the sword. I would fight for the sake of my Empire. But I am only a widow, and I have nothing to offer beyond my blood.”


I think that perhaps the true love story of Realm of Ash was not that of Arwa’s developing relationship with Zahir, but learning to love, to accept, and even to treasure all parts of herself. To me, that had much more weight than her developing feelings for Zahir. Though their relationship is well-developed, starting as strangers, becoming partners in a dangerous quest, and eventually friends that respect each other, I just didn’t love it–even though it was very much a slow-burn, my favorite. Though I felt the allure of nocturnal, secret studies performed hidden away from the eyes of the world, I just didn’t feel the chemistry between the characters.


“A woman’s fortunes rose and fell with the fate of the man she served.”


Their romance was not like Mehr and Amun’s love, which felt so vital and pivotal to The Empire of Sand. Even though I didn’t care for this second relationship as much, I do want to take a moment and recognize how the author so masterfully highlights that each romance is a choice of the women built on the grounds of mutual trust and respect. And in novels where women do not have as much power as their male counterparts, this is very special, as is the understanding that their male love interests will accept their decision with grace regardless of whether it leads to romance. After reading many romance novels that have scenes of questionable consent, I love to see this respect in the love these characters have for each other.


“We know the necessity of being useful, do we not, Lady Arwa? We know the weight of it. The danger of not being what we must be.”


It is even more important that these characters have this respect because of how much time the Realm of Ash spends on the theme that those that love us the most are the ones that have the power to hurt us the most. This is shown countless times in both books of the duology, especially to Arwa, who realized her parents created her fear and identity crisis out of misguided love and fear for her safety. Zahir, entangled as he is with his brothers and sisters (daughters and sons of the Emperor), also knows plenty about the pain of love.


For me, what I was most hoping for in Realm of Ash was a reunion between the sisters, Mehr and Arwa. More than anything, I wanted these two siblings to make each other whole–but I guess that might have undermined the theme of painful love. Still, I had hoped that Mehr would fill in the gaps of Arwa’s Amrithi history and get to love her sister at last, after a lifetime of the precious bond being used against her. I also hoped that maybe the two would even face off against the evil in the Realm of Ash together. But sadly, though they reunite it happens so, so far at the end of the novel and there is barely any time given to their meeting. I would have gladly given up Zahir, the countless court politics, or Arwa’s time at the hermitage to have more time with the sisters together. 


She thought of her sister, again: of being raised to put aside her Amrithi-ness; of carrying the shadow of it inside her nonetheless, the ghosts of all the people who had come before her, buried and lost, in a desert of the Maha’s dead. She thought of the history and the people she had never known, the culture of her birth mother that had been stolen from her, cleaved straight from her body. She thought of the Arwa she was not: the shadow Arwa fashioned from all the Amrithi things she had taught herself not to be. The Arwa she had yearned to be, once.


For me the duology was really about these remarkable sisters, finding strength within and outside of societal norms, and within themselves and their broken identities. And I was saddened by View Spoiler » I’m sure it’s to show that Arwa needs no one but herself and Zahir, but I didn’t care for it. Storywise I also felt it would’ve made more sense for the View Spoiler » but it was not to be.


Even though parts of the narrative didn’t work for me, the writing of Realm of Ash was still superb. The descriptions and the world-building are sumptuously chronicled. The palaces are gleaming, the secret lair of Zahir is cold but somehow cozy, and the villain of the novel was completely unsettling. I didn’t think the author could top the pure evil of the Maha of Empire of Sand, but she does an amazing job with the monstrous nightmare of Realm of Ash. 


“Stories can have great power. Give a story blood, let its roots settle, and any tale can bear fruit.”


If you enjoyed Empire of Sand, Realm of Ash is a must-read, if only to revisit the unique world, beautiful writing, and to discover what happens to the beloved characters of the first novel. Though I didn’t feel Arwa’s story was quite as gripping or as strong as Mehr’s it’s still a powerful read for the messages of love and identity that pervade the book. 


Book Review : Realm of Ash - Blogging with Dragons

Posted September 14, 2020 in Book Reviews, Fantasy


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