Publisher: Orbit Books
Page Count: 450
Release Date: November 12th, 2019
Series: THE BOOKS OF AMBHA, Book 2
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars – Liked it!
Having just survived a massacre that killed an entire fort, including her husband, Arwa wants nothing more than to be a good widow, just as she strove to be a good wife. That means retreating to a home for noble widows, where she will spend the remainder of her life. Except Arwa has a secret: she is descended from the Amrithi, giving her access to magic and a connection to the feared daeva that roam the lands. When it becomes clear that a curse is plaguing the kingdom, Arwa seizes an opportunity to pledge her abilities to the royal family in a desperate move to serve her empire and bring honor to her tarnished family name. But banishing the curse requires walking a path of magic that is deadly for the unprepared and requires trusting a reclusive prince with her secrets.
REALM OF ASH is a lovely fantasy that didn’t quite win me over the same way as its companion book. Although technically part two of a duology, REALM OF ASH largely stands on its own two feet, with only loose connections to the previous book, EMPIRE OF SAND. Arwa was a minor character in the first book, sister to lead character Mehr. Now it’s several years after the ending of Mehr’s story, and Arwa steps into the spotlight.
It’s hard to talk about Arwa without comparing her to Mehr; while that might seem a bit unfair, it’s a dichotomy REALM OF ASH is interested in as well. Mehr grew up knowing her heritage and culture, and refused to bury them. While she would hide her Amrithi blood as much as she needed to for safety (as Amrithi are banished or even killed when discovered), she still danced the rites her mother taught her and yearned to know more about her people. Arwa, on the other hand, has been raised to be the perfect daughter and wife. And the perfect daughter does not acknowledge her imperfect blood, and strives to be submissive in all ways.
It took me a while to warm to Arwa because of her starting state. Mehr was a quiet but defiant character, who took every opportunity she could to resist those who would oppress her. Arwa, on the other hand, bends over backwards to please people, to please the empire that hates her, to please the men that dismiss her. Part of her character growth is to get beyond that (and grow she does) but it was easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything she is not.
The story also goes in fits and starts; Arwa spends the first quarter of the book in a widow’s retreat before events finally lead her to the palace, and that’s where the story gets going. The palace is where some of my favorite parts were: the court politics, the careful maneuvering for power, the women waiting until the right moment to pull a political lever in their favor. It’s all a careful dance, especially for the women who don’t have true autonomy, but have their fates tied to the men in their lives. The women have only a handful of cards to play, so they must make moves with precision.
I also really loved the magic in REALM OF ASH, which is a completely different sort of magic than EMPIRE OF SAND. Arwa and Prince Zahir are able to access what is literally called the realm of ash, a spiritual dimension where the memories of the dead live on. Zahir is hoping to find a cure for the curse plaguing the empire, and Arwa’s Amrithi blood gives her more access to the realm. But exploring the realm of ash also forces Arwa to confront the past of her people, the Amrithi, and to begin to truly understand what she has been missing out on by ignoring part of her heritage.
Unfortunately, while the magic and the struggles at court worked for me, the romance fell a bit flat. This is probably the most subjective part of the book, so your mileage may vary. For me, I felt like I was told more than shown that there was a love blossoming between these two. I am all here for slow burn romance, of people gradually realizing how much they love each other after spending platonic time together. But because the story zips through the early parts of Zahir and Arwa’s working relationship, it seems like a blink until Arwa realizes she has feelings for Zahir. It’s not necessarily bad, I just didn’t personally FEEL the bond between the two characters until the very end of the tale.
All in all, I enjoyed my time with REALM OF ASH. The ending in particular really allows Arwa to shine, and I appreciated her growth as she comes into her own and realizes the importance of the heritage she tried to ignore. If you liked EMPIRE OF SAND, you can be well assured of a good time with REALM OF ASH.
Note: I was provided a free review copy of the book by the publisher in exchange for my fair and honest review.