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.
Last year I read and enjoyed Empire of Sand so of course I was excited to check out this sequel even though it takes place years later and focuses on different characters. I was really curious about seeing Arwa all grown up since we met her in the first book as a child. Also, I really wanted to know how the events at the end of the previous book impacted the world. Really glad I continued on with this series as I think I enjoyed this sequel even more than the first one!
Arwa is such an interesting character! When we first meet her here she’s newly widowed and traveling to a hermitage for widows, since in Ambhan society widows are no longer a part of society, having no husband and not being able to be remarried they are therefore no longer of use. And unlike her older sister she’s grown up without much connection to her Amrithi heritage and considers herself Ambhan. When her blood becomes a source of protection for her, it also becomes a source of fear. She’s afraid of people finding out that she’s of Amrithi blood and being punished for it. She has one goal – to hide from the nightmares that haunt her and live a quiet life being left alone. Of course that’s not how things play out. Partly because the hermitage isn’t exactly what Arwa expected, but also because despite her desire to live a quiet life, Arwa is not a quiet person.–bubbling underneath the surface is someone with a lot to say. She’s also got a strength about her, that’s seen her through losing her sister as a young child, the nightmare of the attack on the fort that killed her husband, and has seen her through this journey so far. She’s strong. But she’s also nearing the end of her patience with things. You can feel how close to the edge she is at times. She’s also a bit of a contradiction in that she’s obedient and yet stubborn and opinionated. She’s someone who finds herself walking in two worlds–both metaphorically and eventually literally once she meets Zahir and begins to help him with his research into the realm of ash. I really loved following her character and watching her grow slowly over time to learn more about herself and come to love something about her history that she’s feared and felt disconnected from.
And of course then you have Zahir. We don’t meet him until we’re a good chunk into the book, once Arwa finds herself at the Ambhan court. He’s a bastard of the emperor, someone resented and abused by members of his own family. Even those that claim to love him are willing to use him as a means to an ends. He spends his days hidden away learning everything he can about the forbidden occult practices in hopes that they can help the empire from what’s befallen it since the Maha’s death. He lives, quite frankly, a lonely and sad existence. He’s developed his own ways of coping in this world that is looking for any excuse to get rid of him, having to constantly walk on eggshells, not fighting back, he seems meek at times but he also has a strength to him, it’s this that has helped him to survive all these years in a court that would prefer he didn’t. I think because of how he’s live for all these years with not much to comfort him other than his research Zahir has become a bit obsessed with the occult practices. I really empathized with Zahir and I’ll admit that I teared up a few times because of the way his family treated him. He’s such a gentle person!
Of course there’s a romance subplot in this, I knew that going into it and I wasn’t disappointed in how it played out. It takes a while for the relationship to develop and even though they quickly come to care for each other it’s a long time after that before things develop further. I really appreciated the time the author took with this because so often with a romance it’s just not developed properly or given enough time for the characters to really get to know one another and examine their own feelings. As for the rest of the plot, well it’s basically that Arwa volunteers herself up in service to the empire and immediately gets in over her head as she’s partnered with Zahir in effort to save the empire using dark and forbidden magic. It’s a fine edge they have to walk and of course everything is going to come crashing down before too long. There’s a real sense of danger throughout the story as Arwa is being pursued by the nightmare creatures that killed everyone at the fort and then later the emperor himself is after her. There are several times where it feels like survival is impossible and I was honestly worried about everyone making it through.
As for the world building, things are expanded a bit from the first book. We do get to see a bit more about the world of Ambha. The hermitage was a revelation in women’s roles in Ambhan society. Once we get to court we see women in a different way as well. There, they are adivisors and seem to be having a ton of influence behind the scenes. Then we meet even yet other women, later on the road, who live very different lives within the empire. I love that though there seem to be strict roles for women there are still places for them and women find their own ways to work within those roles to help shape the world around them. As for the mystical realm of ash, a lot of this felt a bit esoteric and over my head. I didn’t always understand what was going on with this magic but I just went with it anyway. It was interesting seeing the Amrithi magic approached from a different angle than the first book since Arwa has to learn everything from scratch, which helps her learn more about herself in the process.
Overall, I really loved this one. I think the romance was sweet and the characters were easy to get behind. Will happily read anything Tasha Suri writes in the future. 4.5/5 stars.