REALM OF ASH by Tasha Suri
Orbit, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Michael Dodd
The second of The Books of Ambha, Tasha Suri’s Realm of Ash is a rich, romantic, beautifully-told fantasy set in an India-inspired world of magic, strict social structures and a failing, cursed empire. Raised to be a faithful Ambhan daughter, Arwa was always taught to hide her true self and her dangerous Amrithi blood. The sole survivor of a terrible massacre which has left her haunted and without purpose, she tries to retreat and find peace, but when the opportunity arises to serve – and maybe help save – the Empire she sees a chance to put her cursed blood to use. The risks are great, but what does she have to lose?
This is character-driven, action-light fantasy, a story which slowly builds in emotion and intensity as it reveals a world that’s rich in scope but, for its characters, very much defined by boundaries. The constraints of Arwa’s life – as a woman, a widow, a child of two worlds – lead her to initially make choices simply for the sake of a purpose, in a society where people are defined by their family and status. While most of those around her variously fear, deride or manipulate her, when she meets Zahir – illegitimate prince, scholar, prisoner – she recognises the similarities between their positions. As they explore the realm of ash – an alternative plane of existence populated by ghosts and memories – in search of answers to the Empire’s ailing state, she starts to understand that her blood is both curse and cure simultaneously, and that it’s the world which should change and not her.
The slow, measured narrative takes Arwa from a sheltered hermitage to the perilous grandeur of the imperial palace and then, alongside Zahir, out into the crumbling Ambhan Empire and simultaneously deep into the realm of ash. Suri has built a vibrant, often breathtaking setting populated by haunted, traumatised characters and sinister demon-like spirits, with an undercurrent of evocative magic that’s more about tapping into the mythology and theology of this world than the traditional archetypes and structures of fantasy magic. There’s a real joy to exploring this setting, breathing in the detail and texture, from the tangible reality of the Empire to the ghostly dangers of the realm of ash, all of which is freighted with a real sense of history. The weight of that history, or its absence, is a driving force behind both the setting and the narrative.
Technically a sequel to Empire of Sand, this is cleverly designed to work on its own but at the same time reward the reader who’s already familiar with this world. It’s a brave but effective choice to show the consequences of Empire… rather than directly continue that narrative, and to tell a story which expands the setting by offering a very different viewpoint on the same underlying themes and ideas. It might not suit those who like their fantasy pacy, action-packed and swashbuckling, but in Suri’s beautiful, evocative prose there’s a wonderful sense of immersion that should appeal to anyone looking for a refreshing antidote to the male-centric, European-influenced, action-first fantasy which tends to dominate the genre. If you’re on the lookout for a vividly drawn, evocative world, a compelling story of family, emotion and romance, and a powerful female protagonist who solves her problems through fierce will and intellect rather than violence, then this is one to look out for.