Cover Image: Realm of Ash

Realm of Ash

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Member Reviews

Is two books too soon to declare Tasha Suri one of my favorite authors?

RTC (will update soon with full review).

Disclaimer: I received a free e-ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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Tasha Suri is back in the world of Ambha, with another story of magic, power, self-actualisation and belonging that expands the world of the first book, Empire of Sand, while offering a continuation of its wider story. Realm of Ash is about Arwa, the younger  sister of Empire of Sand's protagonist Mehr - and while you don't have to have read Empire of Sand to enjoy this one, it's going to help to have some background on who Mehr is, her own relationship with the Empire and its authorities, as well as making some of the mysterious plot points... a little less mysterious.When we meet Arwa, she's been widowed at the age of 21, due to an incident at the fort where her husband was stationed at which led to a spirit possessing all the men within and driving them to kill each other and everyone else inside. Arwa only survived because of her basic knowledge of what her Amrithi blood allows her - as a distant relative of daiva spirits, Amrithi are able to seek protection from them, and Arwa is thus found alive and surrounded by a ring of her own blood, even as everyone else in the fortress dies. As an Ambhan noblewoman, Arwa is not allowed to marry again or to seek any fulfilment of her own, and thus chooses to join a hermitage for widows, where she meets Gulshera, another widow who appears to have strong connections to the Ambhan royal family. Gulshera tries to coach Arwa through her rage at her situation, and eventually discovers the secret of her blood and passes it on to her connection at the palace. This turns out to be Jihan, daughter of the current king and sister to his heir apparent, who is seeking a way to redress the death of the Maha and the subsequent curse which appears to have been unleashed on the land. Arwa is thrown into court politics, and into apprenticeship with Zahir, a bastard son of the Emperor by a mother who was part of an ancient dissenting order. As an unacknowledged and dangerously smart bastard, whose brothers are far less accommodating to his presence than his sister, Zahir is now at the forefront of trying to discover what happened to the Maha and has been learning how to walk in dreams to understand this. Arwa, with her Amrithi heritage, may just have the connections to magic that they need to try and move the research forward - but as the emperor's health fails, the question about the value of doing so, and of saving Ambha, become increasingly complex.Arwa is a really interesting protagonist, and the book doesn't shy away from establishing her as a person with deep, complex feelings who has been left in a pretty bad place by her life so far. Ambhan society practices purdah - the ritual separation of men and women - and the power of women is portrayed as highly dependent on the men around them, with their choice in marriage being the one officially free decision they are allowed to make. In the wrong hands, Arwa's empowerment narrative could become entirely about rejection of this culture, but Suri takes a far more subtle path than that. While Arwa's need to suppress elements of her personality in marriage is shown as negative, other aspects of her upbringing and culture, like the fact that she veils and spends much of the book in women-only spaces and in the women's sections of the palace are not inherently shown as weaknesses, and the book goes out of its way to show the different levels of influence and power that women can wield even while their male relatives are theoretically the ones in charge. By doing so, the book challenges the assumptions made about Arwa's agency as a restricted elite woman from a misogynist culture, particularly for modern western audiences, and provides space for her to push back on what she needs to. The narrative also offers space for some of Arwa's class privilege to be challenged, as her status allows her to cling to notions of "respectability" and "honour" which aren't available to lower class women who have to find their own way through their culture's structural misogyny.Likewise, Realm of Ash does a great job balancing Arwa's personal arc - which, as a woman of mixed heritage living among the elite of a racist empire, is very much bound up in wider political factors - with those political elements themselves. Suri provides no easy answers on any level to these questions, particularly not for readers who have read Empire of Sand and are aware of the brutal methods the Maha was using to magically maintain the empire. Rather than rely on primogeniture, the Emperor's successor is appointed by him from amongst his children, with an implication that up until now the choice has always been "obvious" with one sibling just being more inherently suited than all the others. As the current emperor's health fails, however, it becomes clear that the choice between politically safe but angry Akhtar, and the fanatical soldier Parviz, does not leave much in the way of a safe option. Like Arwa, as a reader it's hard to separate these choices The romance between Arwa and Zahir is signposted from a mile off - and its centrality to the book shouldn't come as a surprise, particularly for readers of Empire of Sand - but it's delightfully handled, and I particularly enjoyed how Zahir's desirability is portrayed as being due to his beauty and intelligence rather than any sort of "masculine" ideal (the obvious comparison being, of course, with Arwa's soldier husband). As in every other aspect of the book, there's a deliberateness to the angle which the romantic element takes, and it's definitely not portrayed as Zahir somehow "showing Arwa how to live again" - her growing relationship with him is shown as one of mutual discovery and respect, and in many ways Zahir, as a royal bastard confined to a converted crypt within the women's quarters and acknowledged and saved from death or exile only by Jihan, has even less experience of the world than Arwa does. When Arwa, with her greater magical talents, is able to surpass Zahir's ability to walk in dreams, his concerns revolve around her safety rather than any sort of envy or desire to hold her back. In short, it's about as wholesome a relationship as one can get between an angry, traumatised magic wielder and a mysterious royal bastard in fantasy, and all the more refreshing for it. Their relationship and interactions anchor much of the book, although Arwa has plenty of other people (mostly women) around her as well; while she struggles to understand and maintain alliances in her constrained circumstances, her relationships with Gulshera, Jihan, and other characters are nuanced and never automatically antagonistic without good reason. The portrayal of a court that's restrictive but not outright hostile in the first part of the book is important, as it allows Suri to make full use of the shift when Parviz returns, and the atmosphere shifts to something altogether more oppressive.Realm of Ash is ultimately a deceptive book, coming across as something slow and soft while sweeping its characters up in a tense and relentless plot. As this is the second in what looks to be shaping up as a trilogy, it leaves more pressing political cliffhangers than Empire of Sand, although Arwa and Zahir themselves do have a satisfying wrap-up to their relationship arc. I'm intrigued to see how the pieces fall into place for the third book, and the angle Suri takes to bring the wider political plot to its conclusion. In the meantime, Realm of Ash is a book that's well worth picking up on its own or with its predecessors, and Suri is certainly an author to watch when it comes to taking care over characters and crafting slow-burning arcs that satisfy both as personal growth narratives and as romances.
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Arwa has survived a massacre with the aid of those she refuses to acknowledge. Her husband is dead, killed in the same massacre by a nightmare that shouldn’t exist. She refuses to go home, and instead goes to a widow’s home—where she is noticed by more than the other widows. The one that helped her survive the massacre has followed her there, and a princess of the realm is interested in her blood. What will Arwa have to do—or even to become—in order to help mend the land that the empire built upon the blood of her people?

I was taken aback by the fact that this book starts off completely separate from Empire of Sand (book #1 in the Books of Ambha series). It was quite jarring to leave one book with a main character that one has come to know, and then find that the next book has a completely different main character that really didn’t have much visibility in the first one. Also, as a note: You do not have to read the titles in order, however, there are frames of reference that will make more sense if you do.

Having said that, this book does stand on its own merits. It takes place in the same world as the first, it’s just a different perspective on some of the things that are happening. The main character, Arwa, took a little bit of time to get to know. I found her a little bit more…aloof as a character. In time, as I got to know her as well, I found that I appreciated her more than I thought. Rather than the passion and fire that Mehr had, Arwa finds her rage—at what the empire is, at what has been done to the Amrithi, and at how her life has been a series of lies to keep her contained. Once she finds that anger, she becomes more human and alive, and her choices begin to take interesting turns.

The plot in this one, rather than centering on the Amrithi themselves—or the Maha—centers around the Emperor and his kin and trying to solve the curse that is destroying the world they know. Unwilling to admit to the reason it’s happening and unwilling to deal with “heretics” to try and fix it, they are at a standstill. Arwa finds herself helping one segment of the royal family, while hiding from another—and quite a bit of the story revolves around this push and pull between factions. The colonialism is much more apparent in this book, particularly as we see so much from the perspective of the ruling family, as they attempt to essentially justify their sins.

Overall, while I didn’t find myself as engrossed by this book as I did with book one, it was still a great story. I do believe that I just felt more connected to Mehr as a character, and it in no way implies flaws in book two. I’m unclear if this is to be a trilogy, though I feel that it must be—there is still resolution that could be had for the country as a whole, and for the current emperor (no spoilers!)—and I will happily reach for book three if one should be published. This land, the daisha, and the people within the Books of Ambha series weave a spell that is hard to beat, and they should not be missed. (Review posted on vampirebookclub.net)
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The Ambhan Empire has been plagued by a curse, which seems to have become worse since the death of the Maha. Now that the Emperor lies near death, it becomes gravely apparent to young widow Arwa, who hides the true lineage of her blood and the curse it carries, and bastard prince Zahir they must find the answers from their ancestors in the treacherous realm of ash.

This is the second book in the Books of Ambha series. I did not know that going in, but I don't feel like I necessarily needed to have read the first book. This one made complete sense all on its own, though I am now curious about the first book, Empire of Sand.

The Characters

The story is told from Arwa's perspective. She is a young widow with the blood of the cursed Amrithi people, but was raised to be Ambhan by her stepmother. The conflict in her character overlaid the story, but still managed to be beautifully subtle. I loved how it was simply a part of her, her upbringing and her blood, and helped her evolve as a person, but didn't contain any real anger. Arwa was a bit of a lost child, but she carried strength and maturity, devotion and humility. She was a beautiful character, fragile yet strong. My one complaint about her was that it seemed like it was the effects of the realm of ash that really prompted her growth instead of it being something more internally driven.

The other main character is Zahir, the illegitimate son of the dying emperor. He should have been put to death alongside his mother, but the love of his sister saved him, though it did condemn him to a life spent in a tomb. Studious and curious, he strove to save the empire even though his family chose to ignore his existence. Sometimes he felt a little too good to be true and maybe his humility and modesty went a little overboard, but those traits perfectly suited him. I really enjoyed reading about him.

I have a love-hate relationship with the relationship formed between Arwa and Zahir. Most of the book felt like it was friendship with a line drawn in the sand that neither of them would cross. And then they became more than friends and it seemed to happen very quickly, very intensely. Still, their relationship somehow felt magical, right, and beautiful.

The World Building

I loved the world Suri built in this book. To put it mildly. It was extraordinarily well-done and well-thought out. The world was rich and the realm of ash was a little terrifying to me as a reader. I loved that the world made sense, that it didn't have anything extraneous.

South Asian-inspired, it was beautifully painted and had a rich culture to match. The people and the world worked together to create a rich tapestry of life and history. I loved that the history played a strong role even as the characters were looking toward making a better future. The building blocks were perfectly placed, which made it so easy for me to immerse myself in the world. I was sad to come to the end of the book because I didn't want to leave the world just yet.

The Plot

I must be honest and say I didn't pay as much attention to what the book was about as I should have. I was too often caught up in the characters and the world to really think about what the story was. It was nicely character-driven, so the story simply flowed around them. Every plot point made sense, every wench held a strong purpose, every setback was perfectly placed. The story advanced at its own pace when it was necessary in support of the characters. It was so lovely to be swept up in the lives of Arwa and Zahir.

Now that I've come out of the book and reviewed what it was about, I realize the plot, at its core, is quite simplistic. It's two people working to save their empire. There are pieces built onto it to provide complexity, but the sheer simplicity made this a beautiful read. There were a few major events, but the story did move at a slow pace. Strangely enough, I never noticed until now just how slow it had been.

Overall

Overall, I thought this a truly beautiful book. It makes me think of pouring out honey: slow, but rich and sweet. I wanted to both finish reading to see how it ended and to never finish reading so I could stay with the characters and the world. Arwa and Zahir felt alive to me and I felt pieces of myself in them. The world was stunning and I wanted to keep exploring. Even though I haven't had the benefit of reading the first book, I didn't feel any confusion, and I can't help but be in a bit of awe about what a lovely read this was.

Thank you to the publisher, Orbit, for a free e-copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
Link to post: https://thelilycafe.com/book-review-realm-of-ash-by-tasha-suri/
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Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri picks up years after Empire of Sand with Meher’s sister Arwa, set in the same world. While there are pieces that readers of Empire of Sand will recognize in Realm of Ash, it is not a sequel, just set in the same world. Those that have not read Empire of Sand will not have any issue following or lapping up every moment of Realm of Ash.

It is quite clear from the start that Arwa is troubled, as is the entirety of the Ambha empire. Riddled with “madness,” lack of resources and rumors of a curse since the death of the Maha, an over 400 year-old God said to have protected, and provided for all people.

Despite these conflicts among the people and the lands, it is not this conflict and destitution that drives Realm of Ashes. Make no mistake. At its core, Realm of Ashes is a story of self-discovery and reconciliation between what is expected of you, that which you are raised and expected to be vs. that which is in your blood.

Arwa, being from a family disgraced by the Empire, was raised to be a noblewoman and reclaim their good name. However, that plan goes awry at the death of her husband. Now widowed, she goes to live at the hermitage with other widows, where she must suppress and hide the magic that flows throughout her blood, the half of herself she was raised to belief cursed- the same magic carried by her older sister, Mehr.

Realm of Ash

THANK YOU TO ORBIT BOOKS FOR AN ARC IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW.
Initially Arwa joined the hermitage for safety, continuing the suppression of the magic that flows through her veins, desperately holding onto the mask she was raised to wear, of who she was meant to be.

As the empire continues its descent into ruin, Arwa realizes that she cannot just standby and do nothing. Without giving away too many spoilers, Arwa encounters a disgraced prince, Zahir that is also trying to reconcile who he was supposed to be with who he is, and what his path actually is.

Together they embark on a journey trying to say an Empire that has caused both of them nothing but pain and anguish. It has ripped them in two because the Empire never would accept them as who they were, but only as they were molded to suit the Empire’s purposes. They were oppressed because the Empire deemed them lesser than by ancestry, “cursed by magic.”

However, through their determination to journey through the Realm of Ashes, Arwa and Zahir believe that salvation of an Empire through the ancestors and magic it held in contempt will also bestow the ability of Arwa and Zahir to find their personage and own their true selves.

Suri’s prose is breath-taking with a poetic feel that seamlessly lulls you into a beautifully built landscape and immersive depth of character. Moments of aching character determination, pain and empowerment are all told with vivid tone, defiance and absolution that keeps you rooting for their arcs throughout the story. All absolute necessity with such a character driven story.

Her true talent, like Empire of Sand, is how that is sharply utilized for terrifying moments of conflict between mortal and otherworldly dimensions. The Realm of Ash is built with the dread and fear that will stay with you for as long as the beauty of the prose laid out through the rest of the story.

Suri is a master at creating an equally developed magic system, world and characters that bring the reader right into the beating heart, palpitating fear and powerful moments of each part of a character’s story.
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98 points, 5 stars!

Quote:
Lonely, Jihan had called him. But Arwa could only look at him and think of his vulnerable neck, his wrists, the moonlight on him and think, Starving, he is starving.

Review:
Wow. Enchanting. Beautiful. I already know this review will feel inadequate compared to the elegance that is the book itself. The way the story flows and draws you in just was so well done. I managed to feel like I was the main character, Arwa, and was so drawn into her story. Captivated, even. The setting was exemplary. Realm of Ash was just so, so good.

While reading, it really struck me how different a book Realm of Ash would be if I hadn't read Empire of Sand first. It would have been a profounding different experience. Both of these books can be considered standalone, and Realm of Ash does take place about ten years after the first book so it does have spoilers for the ending of that amazing book. I think it actually would have been quite fun to read this without the context, which is not something I typically ever say. I would have loved to have had the perspective of Arwa without Mehr getting in the way.

A lot of time has passed since Empire of Sand. The world has become different, worse since the Maha died. Less safe. Famine. Disease. Fear. This setup leads to some absolutely brilliant worldbuilding and a magic system that I wanted to know more about. There was just so much more to learn than I could have thought possible. Yet I still wanted to know more. It was amazing.

And then there is the main character. Ah, Arwa, you poor thing. Before the book began, Arwa was the sole survivor of a vicious attack that killed her husband as well as the entire military installation he was in charge of. Before that, she spent her life trying to be perfect, fearing that she would be found to be less than foolproof, because her bloodline made her cursed. Now widowed, Arwa is considered a ghost and from here her true journey starts. Realm of Ash takes Arwa from her desire to become cloistered away with other widowed women, to her decision to stand up and be useful, to Arwa being strong. I love Arwa, broken bits and all.

The romance is an adorably slow burn. The kind where you know it is going to happen, and you just want to knock these two numbskulls together to make them see what they have. Propriety? A complete taboo against the very idea of remarriage? Bah, who needs any of that? We have some love to get to!

And if all this wasn't enough gushing, just look at that cover. Isn't it exquisite?

I received this book from Orbit in exchange for an honest review. A huge thank you to Tasha Suri and Orbit for providing the opportunity to review this copy.
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Realm of Ash is one of my favorite books of 2019. Tasha Suri expertly weaves a story of anger, hunger, yearning, and what comes after all the grief, loss, and pain. Suri writes a new chapter, a second chance, for many characters who believe their story has already ended, their future obsolete. The slow-burn romance is key as it takes Arwa and Zahir a long time to heal, to accept this new chapter, before they can allow themselves to admit love. It is a heart-wrenching, soul-enriching story of finding purpose and peace in an uncertain world. A tremendous achievement, and a book that my own soul needed very much this year.
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A heart-wrenching fantasy adventure twined with a sweetly yearning slow-burn romance. Simply stunning.
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OVERALL
First off, I would like to thank the publisher, Orbit Books, for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

When I looked up after finishing this long anticipated read, my head was full of a heaviness and my ears were ringing; I’d been lying on my bed for four hours straight, reading like a woman possessed, and I hadn’t realized it until after I read the last words, put down my iPad, and released a heavy breath towards my ceiling.

Flaying the contagious second-book-syndrome open and leaving it in the dust, Realm of Ash is not only a worthy successor to the enthralling Empire of Sand, but, in my humble opinion, surpasses it. Tasha Suri burst into the industry with compelling prose and a penchant for exploring facets of humanity, and Realm of Ash is evidence of a loving cultivation of those strengths.

Realm of Ash is a tale of people learning to belong to themselves while being shaped, both willingly and unwillingly, by forces beyond their control. It’s a story that left me aching to my core while my soul lifted a couple of inches out of my body. I can’t say I expected any less, but no amount of preparation could have left me less effected. Honestly, if I were able to give this book more than 5 stars, I would not hesitate to do so.

PLOT
Much like Empire of Sand, Realm of Ash follows another journey of personal discovery, this time with two new characters. Our main character is Arwa, whom you may be familiar with if you’ve read Empire of Sand. She is the younger sister of Mehr, the first book’s protagonist, and now a full grown woman.

Set years after the events of Empire of Sand, we learn that Arwa, who was separated from Mehr at a very young age, has not had the easiest life. A widowed noblewoman from a family fallen from the Empire’s grace, Arwa is a shell of a person when we first meet her at the beginning of Realm of Ash. Through a number of events, she becomes acquaintances with Zahir, a not-prince bastard son hidden away from the world–very much also the shell of a person.

Together, they are set upon a mission to save their beloved Empire from ruin and nightmares; though it becomes more of a mission of self-discovery. Of two people coming together as one as they also struggle to reconcile two halves of themselves.

Also like Empire of Sand, what makes Realm of Ash unique is how the plot’s progression is not reliant upon a situational resolution. That is, the rising action, climax, and beyond are less driven by circumstances of the world and more by the characters’ personal growth. While this can be frustrating to audiences because we are so conditioned to expect tangible changes and consequences, I also rather enjoyed this type of plot and storytelling because it respects the structure of the series’s worldbuilding.

That is to say, both Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash tackle issues of systemic oppression under a vast and generations-old empire. However, you cannot dismantle a system without first dismantling one’s self, unlearning all that you’ve been taught, and reclaiming yourself. This is particularly evident in Realm of Ash, since both Arwa’s and Zahir’s entire lives have been dictated by the Empire.

(Oh god, it’s becoming so hard to remain spoiler free. I just deleted three sentences because I was on the verge of revealing too much. November, hurry up! I have more things to say!)

CHARACTERS
As I introduced earlier, our two main characters are Arwa and Zahir, two nobles who should have had relatively easy lives due the circumstances of their births, but lived a life of suffering instead–also because of the circumstances of their births.

Arwa, like Mehr, is half Ambhan (the race of the Empire) and half Amrithi ( a race of people reviled and brutally oppressed due to their “heretical” ways.) However, unlike Mehr, Arwa was forcibly removed from her Amrithi heritage at a young age and molded to be a pure, honorable Ambhan noblewoman. Because of her upbringing, Arwa is socialized to believe her Amrithi heritage makes her cursed, and the only way she can maintain her honor is by being as Ambhan as possible and being as useful to her family, her (late) husband, and the Empire as much as possible.

In many ways, she is similar to Mehr, fighting for the right to be her own person throughout the book. However, unlike Mehr, her journey is less of fighting the metaphorical chains around her, and more about her anger. About piecing herself together and becoming the Arwa shaped by the Gods, the living, and the dead.

(Can you tell I really love Arwa?)

Zahir is the bastard son of the Emperor and a courtesan who also belonged to an order of female scholars (and, in the Empire’s eyes, heretics). Like Arwa, he does not belong to himself and is conditioned to believe his life is only worth something as long as he is devoted to saving the Empire with his penchant for forbidden scholarly studies. He has never desired for self-liberation as he sees it to be a privilege he does not deserve as the bastard son of a heretic.

His journey is of choosing who he wants to be–a reincarnated enabler of the Empire’s crimes, or a hidden scholar seeking knowledge but doing little with it. Or something else entirely. It is of realizing what the truth really means, and what the responsibility of one who seeks the truth is.

Both Zahir and Arwa are two broken people who don’t realize how broken they are until they walk the path of their ancestors and see that anger, love, truth, and justice are all things they have the right to as human beings.

There are quite a few other notable characters, but the one that stood out to me the most was Jihan. The full blooded daughter of the Emperor, she is an ambitious and cunning woman who, despite all her worthy characteristics, is defined by which of her brothers she aligns with because she is, at the end of the day, a woman in Ambhan society. Realm of Ash also includes a cast of widows, both old and young, who carry a certain power despite being cast aside and ignored as if dead by society.

Basically, we are gifted with a wide variety of female characters who are limited by the Empire but defy it in their very existences.

And, of course, we do get to see Mehr again. (I’ll say no more than that.)

SETTING/WORLDBUILDING
Tasha Suri’s worldbuilding is vast and way too multi-faceted to write a summary that will do it justice. I cover some of it in my review of Empire of Sand, if you’re curious.

However, while Empire of Sand focuses on the different cultures that live within the Empire as well as the Gods and their dreamfire–storms that are physical manifestations of the Gods’ dreams that change the shape of the world, Realm of Ash doesn’t touch much of these things. It’s not to it’s detriment, however, because it introduces another part of the worldbuilding that completes what was introduced to the audience in the first book.

Towards the beginning of the novel, Suri introduces to us the concept of the world as a wheel with three spokes: the world of the living, the world of the Gods, and the realm of ash (the world of the dead). The spokes of of the realms of the Gods and ash both connect to the spoke that is our reality, demonstrating how the Gods and the dead both shape the world of the living, and how the living affects these two realms in return.

As you can tell by the title, Realm of Ash focuses on the realm of ash–an elaborate metaphor for how our heritage and familial history, which better translates to generational trauma (a concept children of immigrants and BIPOC are generally familiar with), shape who we are as people.

What stuck with me most about the imagery of the wheel and spokes of the universe is, even though this mythology and religion is fictional, the resemblance to imagery from real Eastern religions is clear. It somehow felt familiar and therefore easy to envision and understand–another testament to Suri brings her desi roots into her stories.

And speaking of roots, Suri also introduces the concept of blood roots. I won’t go too in detail, but these also tie into the overall themes of the book: finding out who you are and remembering where you came from.

WRITING STYLE
Tasha Suri has quickly become one of my favorite authors, and Realm of Ash reminded me exactly why. Suri’s writing is incredibly immersive, filling you with Arwa’s point of view to the point where your thoughts while reading the book are very intertwined with hers rather than wholly your own. It’s this same type of writing that also evokes those deeply felt emotions I mentioned. I have no idea how she does it, but Suri somehow not only sustains the audience on hundreds of pages of internal turmoil and reflections, but makes you feel all of it like you’re the character she’s writing.

Suri also continues with her exploration of what it means to be human, this time with in-depth study of themes such being stuck between two worlds (both literally and physically); the base emotions of hunger, yearning, and want; and fighting tooth and nail against the hate and love of everyone around you as well (as well as the dead) to be who you truly are.

All of this among many other things, but if I keep going on the tangent I really want to write right now, I’m not going to stop.

(Seriously, as I write this review, I’m consulting pages of furiously scribbled notes I took right after I finished Realm of Ash like I was in a fever dream. It’s taken me almost 2 hours to write this review because trying to put all of my thoughts into decipherable sentences has been a real challenge.)
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I only read Empire of Sand earlier this summer, so the wait shouldn't have been as excruciating as other people's, but it was so painful! But the wait was definitely worth it. Realm of Ash truly blew me away. The yearning (to be more than you are, to be your true self, to know that more is possible) is so palpable that I couldn't put the book down.

The prose evokes an atmosphere that's slow but constant, like a siren song from which you physically can't pull yourself away. I have so many quotes highlighted because we love metaphors of desire/yearning/etc. as hunger and starvation! [insert hunger.mp3 by Florence + the Machine]

I loved following Arwa, who's spent her entire life making herself smaller, not as angry and not as out-spoken. It was very interesting to view this world through her eyes, a world we'd previously only seen through Mehr's eyes. It's definitely a contrast: Arwa benefits from being Ambhan, not just because she was raised it, but because she looks it. Mehr, instead, was so obviously Amrithi, dark-skinned and curly-haired.

This advantage of being lighter-skinned (and, possibly, white-passing) is still so prevalent today. Reading about the effects of this in a fantasy was so realistic, and Arwa's struggle with passing as Ambhan was difficult to feel but heartening to read.

She falls into the world of politics and propriety, but also a world that's rediscovering itself after the loss of the Maha. Although she's a widow, she defies tradition and goes to court to work in secret to solve the mystery of her blood. Insert Zahir, the king's illegitimate son who's trying to fix the curse that's fallen over the empire since the Maha's death. He and Arwa work together to discover the secrets of the gods, and they gradually form a bond.

Their relationship was a steady slow burn, filled with such tension that I was holding my breath the entire time. Add in the standards of society (Arwa is a widow and she can't sacrifice her honor), and the tension multiplies. It's a lot. I totally wasn't crying.

Realm of Ash is a truly gorgeous book that details the character growth of accepting that you can be more, that you can have more, and that fleshes out the world of Empire of Sand. The writing sets a slow, entrancing tone that you can't stop reading, and the characterizations are stunningly detailed. I can't wait for the third book!
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