For far too long, the words “epic fantasy” have conjured up images of knights, elves, dwarves and orcs, tied together by a mix of vaguely medieval European tropes and ideas. UK-based author Tasha Suri’s debut epic fantasy novel Empire of Sand eschews all these clichés, offering up a new and exciting landscape and drawing on a different mythos: South Asian history and the Mughal Empire in particular.

Wasting no time on lengthy exposition or information dumping, Suri throws us into her secondary world – magic, supernatural beings and all – giving a history and background as the story unfolds. The novel begins in the city of Jah Irinah, part of the vast Ambhan Empire, which has flourished for decades under the twin leadership of the Emperor and a religious leader named the Maha. The Ambhan nobility rule the conquered provinces in their Emperor’s name, and the Maha is the focus of their fervent prayers.

But not everyone has a place in the Ambhan Empire: the members of a small indigenous nomadic tribe named the Amrithi are systematically hunted down by the Emperor’s nobles. The Amrithi are descendants of the daiva, supernatural beings who once walked the land but who are now reduced in power, appearing only as shadows in Jah Irinah. The Amrithi were also the ones to rebel against the first Ambhan conqueror to come to Irinah, and it is this, we are told, that drives the Emperor’s enduring hatred of them, and makes them the object of the Ambhans’ fear and distrust.

A complex protagonist

All of this is important for us to know because the novel’s protagonist, Mehr, is the illegitimate daughter of the governor of the province of Irinah and his Amrithi mistress. Mehr’s place in the hierarchy of her father’s household is precarious: she is accorded the respect due to the governor’s daughter, but she is bullied by her Ambhan stepmother and constantly reminded of her taint, her half-Amrithi heritage.

Mehr enjoys a degree of privilege thanks to her social status but she slowly realises her clansmen and women are seen as “barbarians” whose continued existence will not be tolerated. In the face of this, Mehr clings harder to the Amrithi rites and rituals taught to her by her mother, performing them in secret in her chambers.

It is her pursuit of this heritage that forces her out of her comfortable life and changes her life forever. Suri foregrounds Mehr’s struggle to preserve and understand her identity right from the start of the novel, and this forms a crucial part of the action that follows.

A layered world

Suri’s world-building inventively draws on the history of colonisation, oppressed peoples and religious fanaticism to create a layered and unique world. At the core are the two belief systems and their followers pitted against each other: the Ambhan mystics who pledge lifelong devotion to the Maha and the persecuted Amrithi, descendants of the ancient daiva.

Through the course of the novel, Mehr finds out more about her Amrithi identity and the unique gifts this entails, and is thrust into relationships that force her to manipulate them to the Empire’s gain. How she navigates this, and the impact her actions have for both Ambhans and Amrithi form the core conflict of the book. That it is easy for a reader to grasp the painfulness of this situation and the emotional resonance of it for Mehr and the other characters is a testament to Suri’s excellent world-building.

Suri’s prose is generally clear and lucid, although it veers into the melodramatic occasionally. Mehr is an interestingly flawed protagonist: she is only about 19 years old, and it shows. She often makes mistakes and bad decisions that end up hurting the people around her, but Suri successfully shows how much she grows and learns from each mistake.

Where Suri really excels is in creating an antagonist whose casual violence, manipulativeness and megalomania are quite terrifying, giving all the more emotional weight to Mehr’s resistance to his power. The contrast Mehr’s fragility and humanness form to an antagonist who is so powerful as to be almost divine makes for a great showdown towards the close of the novel.

The Mughal connection

I am loath to make too much of the Mughal Empire connection, as Suri’s empire is a dark place of mysticism and oppression. Conqueror and conquered have a relationship mostly defined by violence, even though, as we see from the relationship between Mehr’s Amrithi mother and her Ambhan father, there are exceptions to the rule. We hear very little of the other conquered groups who form part of the Empire, with only brief mentions of the Irin and the Chand, and only in terms of how they seem to have accepted Ambhan dominance, unlike the Amrithi.

It will be interesting to see whether Suri adds to the histories of these other peoples in the planned sequel to the book, and examines the ways in which empires adapt and change, especially in terms of cultural borrowing and syncretism, both of which were significant features of the real Mughal Empire.

Empire of Sand is an impressive debut in many respects: its protagonist is relatable and likeable, and the world it is set in is believable and emotionally affecting. Although the plotting and pace are mostly spot-on, Suri has a tendency to be unnecessarily repetitive for dramatic effect, which can be distracting. Those are small flaws, however, and do not detract from the fact that this is an accomplished first novel, featuring a world I am eager to return to in the books to come.

Empire of Sand, Tasha Suri, Orbit Books.