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.
I have been procrastinating on this book for a long while, so I was quite happy for our Indian Lit Readathon 2020 because it finally made me add this to my tbr and get to it. And while I won’t deny the brilliance of it, I also think I was not in the right headspace to appreciate it completely.
I read Empire of Sand too fairly recently, so the world of Ambha is still fresh in mind and it was nice to be back here. While EoS was more about one of the main pillars of this world – the faith in the Maha and the exploitation/genocide of the Amrithi people; this companion novel takes on the other major pillar – the Emperor and the politics of his court, and the role women play in this world. The Mughal inspiration is very much visible in the representation of the women – from the power the women closest to the Emperor wield in the household and influence his decisions behind the scenes to the courtesans who have their own secret influence across the court to the forgotten women – the widows who are expected to be ghosts because they are nothing after the death of their husbands. And just like we got to know more about the daiva in the first book, here we get to navigate the realm of the dead and how the knowledge they possess can be used to save the world.
It is in this world that we follow the story of Arwa who is a 21 year old widow. She has never been the kind of person a noblewoman of their land is expected to be, but she has suppressed her inherent nature, made herself small and tried to fit into the expected mold of a useful daughter and wife. But when her whole world is upended, she just doesn’t know what to do anymore. She is full of grief and rage, but no way to channel it. And when she learns how the empire she has grown up revering is built upon lies, her self loathing only increases. She throws herself into finding a cure for the curse affecting the empire, to be useful for something and not just waste away without purpose. In this endeavor, she gets to team up with Zahir who is the Emperor’s illegitimate child, unwanted in his own way. This is a tale of two people who are not valued in this society because of their lineage and circumstances, trying to do something useful so that they can survive, even if it means putting their lives on the line because they have no other choice.
The reason I say I couldn’t appreciate the book enough is because being in Arwa’s head throughout, we get to experience her immense grief and loss in close quarters and that really made me more depressed (I don’t think I would’ve been so affected if not for the pandemic and lockdowns). But I also loved the friendship that develops between her and Zafir based on mutual respect and their quest for survival and knowledge. It’s a very slow burn romance that is beautiful to watch unfold.
The best part of the book (and the series in general) is the themes the author tries to discuss and make us think about. Especially in Realm of Ash, we get to question if an empire whose centuries of prosperity is built upon the backs of an oppressed people, their exploitation and genocide, is worth saving. And we can’t help but see the parallels between this story and the history of US/UK built upon slavery and colonialism. We also see a whole group of people completely cutoff from a part of their heritage and forced to conform/assimilate to the majority culture, and how much trauma this can lead to. And finally, the one theme which is the major source of grief for Arwa is how much love can hurt; how even when we act based on love and kindness, these actions may cause long time harm on our loved ones.
To conclude, I feel like I’ve just rambled incoherently and this has been the case for a while. I seem to have lost my touch in being able to articulate my thoughts about books, so please excuse my ramblings. Just go and read this series because the writing is beautiful, the world building is amazing while also having so many parallels to our real world, the characters are unforgettable and the romances are just the most evocative and emotional. The pacing can be slow, so be prepared to savor these books instead of binging them. And I also recommend the audiobooks because the narrator Soneela Nankani has such a lilting and soothing voice that you will get lost in her storytelling.