Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Title: Realm of Ash
Author: Tasha Suri
Series: The Books of Ambha, #2
Pages: 496
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: November 14th 2019

      “The fate of an empire rests in the hands of a young woman with magical blood and nothing left to lose, and an outcast prince determined to save his family at any cost, in this “dark, melodious, and memorable” new fantasy (Library Journal, starred review) from the author of the award-winning Empire of Sand.
    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.”

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“The dagger sank hard and fast into the soil. The shadows of its body surrounded her, the daiva shattered into a dozen smaller birds. Wings battered her face and her hair—even her arms, as she raised them to protect herself. Her hand was still bleeding freely. She was lightheaded with pain.”

Tasha Suri returns to her luscious fantasy world of the Ambha Empire with Realm of Ash, the companion novel to her debut Empire of Sand. This newest installation focuses on Mehr’s younger sister Arwa. Having recently been widowed, Arwa as taken refuge in a sanctuary for widows of nobility. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the memories of how her husband and everyone at his fort perished, leaving her the only survivor. Around her the Ambhan Empire is collapsing, a consequence of their Maha’s demise a decade earlier. When Arwa’s bloodline is discovered, she agrees to aid one of the Emperor’s sons in an effort to save the Empire. Zahir is the illegitimate son of the Emperor, unacknowledged and hidden away by his sister. He’s spent years trying to find a way to save the Empire, seeking out knowledge only the Maha possessed. Together Arwa and Zahir traverse the realm of ash in search of a way to keep the Empire from crumbling, but on their journey they uncover truths that call to question whether they can or should save the Empire at all.

Suri has created one of the most profound, multi-layered worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The Ambhan Empire has prospered largely in part because of the mystical Maha. As long as the Emperor showed reverence, the Maha blessed the land. Since his death, however, the Empire has been in decline and mysterious illnesses have plagued its people. In Darez Fort a darkness found its way inside, consuming its inhabitants and turning them against one another. Arwa, because of the secret of her bloodline, being Amrithi on her mother’s side, was spared. The Amrithi people have been a part of this land, but have been driven out and their religion has been regarded with distrust. The Emperor and the Maha have collectively taken part in ethic cleansing. Amrithi have been driven to their deaths or forced to hide away. Descendants like Arwa have been taught their heritage must be kept hidden, that her blood has made her a curse upon those around her. In reality the Maha has used these people for the Empire’s advancement, tapping into their special relationship with the gods of old. He and those in power have villainized and dehumanized them, so in the end their receding numbers are regarded justly or indifferently.

Arwa is one of the few people left who straddles both worlds, born from an Amrithi mother and a Ambhan father. Her ties to her maternal side are tentative at best. Her adopted mother has drilled it into her that she must shape herself into someone worthy. She’s spent years molding herself into someone more gentle, someone vulnerable who is subject to the will of others. In truth, she struggles to rein in her anger and her sharp-tongue. Her relationship with Zahir develops into more of a partnership and both are finally able to be who they are without consequence. Zahir, much like Arwa, has grown up in a kind of cage. As the illegitimate son of the Emperor he has been regarded as a threat, but his sister has done her best to keep him safe. He has spent years in study, trying to prove his worth to the Empire, but knowing that one day the favor of his sister may not be enough to keep him alive. Both of these characters have been used as pawns, taught that they are unworthy, and stripped of their agency. Together they find the strength to forge their own paths.

Realm of Ash is the perfect companion novel in a superlative duology that showcases the quiet yet fierce strength of its characters with a magical system that will steal your breath.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

ARC (Snapshot) Review: Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez

Title: Woven in Moonlight
Author: Isabel Ibañez
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Release Date: January 7th 2020

**I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**

      A lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolución, drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.
      Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
      When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.
      She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.”

  • Magical system – Ximena’s magic is tied to the moon and the Illustrians magic all reflect this. There is a character who can read the stars and Ximena weaves moonlight into her tapestries. It’s a very beautiful and almost delicate kind of magic.
  • Unlearning harmful prejudices – I do have some criticism when it comes to how this is done in Woven in Moonlight, but I did appreciate the concept of people belonging to certain oppressive groups having to reevaluate their worldview.
  • Ximena and Catalina – Though we only get small glimpses into their relationship before Ximena is whisked away, I loved how close these two were. They grew up as each other’s families and even though you sense tension, at least from Ximena’s side, you can tell how much they care about the other.
  • Rich cultures – It was interesting to see the Llascans from an outside perspective and even though Ximena remains bias for much of the narrative, it was hard not to be pulled in by the vibrancy of their world.
  • Ximena’s POV – I struggled with the narrative for one reason in particular. The story from a privileged person’s POV, learning to confront their prejudices and realizing a marginalized group of people actually have value is one I’ve grown tired of. I question the novel being told only from Ximena’s perspective when there was another character whose story had more value. This would have been a very different read for me if we got a different POV to balance out Ximena’s prejudice. I was really disappointed that Ximena’s views really didn’t feel challenged on paper enough until the latter half of the novel and that readers as a result are forced to center her views for so long.
  • Characterization – Unfortunately I didn’t feel like many of these characters were fully formed. Ximena, for example, was introduced as the Condesa’s decoy who struggles to find an identity outside of this performance she’s been doing for years. This could have also been a book about identity, but instead of being a running theme, it’s merely a cursory observation made at the beginning and never revisited again.

Isabel Ibañez’s Woven in Moonlight, while having a really unique magical system, falls short when it comes to its commentary on colonization.

★ ★

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

Title: We Hunt the Flame
Author: Hafsah Faizal
Series: Sands of Arawiya, #1
Pages: 472
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date: May 14th 2019

      “People lived because she killed.
      People died because he lived.
      Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways.
      Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.
      War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.
      Set in a richly detailed world inspired by ancient Arabia, We Hunt the Flame is a gripping debut of discovery, conquering fear, and taking identity into your own hands.”

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“There was a pulse deep inside her that relished those visits into the depths of darkness. She hated the Arz. She hated it so much, she craved it.”

Hafsah Faizal’s debut We Hunt the Flame is a sweeping Arab-inspired fantasy that gets better with each page turned. In order to keep her people from starving Zafira bint Iskandar has disguised herself as the Hunter, the only person able to enter the evil forest known as the Arz without being driven to madness. In Arawiya, all caliphates have been touched by the Arz, one of the many aftereffects of the land being robbed of magic years ago. When Zafira is approached by the enigmatic Silver Witch, she is offered the opportunity to rid the world of the Arz for good and restore magic. But in order to do so, she must journey to the island of Sharr, one masked in mystery. Unbeknownst to her, she isn’t the only one being sent to Sharr. The sultan has sent his own son, known as the Prince of Death, tasked with retrieving the book that promises to undo the curse laid upon the land and kill the famed Hunter. In order to survive the island, strangers must form unlikely alliances, but their distrust of one another may be their undoing.

Faizal’s writing is nothing short of brilliant. Her descriptions are lush and often lyrical. She has a knack for capturing every dark and eerie backdrop. The Arz slowly creeps upon the land and any who dares enter unwillingly surrenders their sanity. Beyond the Arz is the Barensea, which is home to ferocious creatures waiting to devour wayward travelers. But it is the Sharr that completely captivated me as a reader. The island was once a prison, but has been cut off from the land of the living since the disappearance of magic. Monsters await in the shadows and the very island itself craves bloodshed.

We Hunt the Flame‘s characters are just as captivating as its setting. Zafira has made herself into a hunter, the very thing her people rely on in order to survive. She’s been plagued by her father’s death, one she feels responsible for. Being the Hunter has become her only purpose and she isn’t sure who she would be without it. Nasir is known throughout Arawiya as the Prince of Death, a lethal weapon Sultan Ghameq wields across the lands. But in truth Nasir has been molded by the cruelty of his father, forced to become a monster in order to survive. But still, there is a flicker of humanity in Nasir that refuses to snuffed out, not matter how much he wants it to. Altair is a renown general, but it is his humor that really leaps off the page. His contentious relationship with Nasir is equal parts enjoyable and insightful when it comes to both characters.

Kifah and Benyamin are the final characters introduced in the novel. The former a female warrior, independent and deadly, and I can’t wait to learn more about her in the next novel. Benyamin is very much a mystery, his knowledge far exceeds any of the others and there are times when you’re not quite sure what his true motivates are. I do wish we had gotten a chance to spend more time with these two characters and felt that certain dynamics would have felt more rewarding if we had been introduced to them earlier. There were also times where it felt like certain relationships went from contentious to something else a little too rapidly. It almost felt like the novel left out key interactions which would have made the evolution of these relationships feel more consistent.

Hafsah Faizal’s debut is a little slow getting started, but once it sank its claws into me, I could not stop reading. If you like fantasy books full of dark foes and equally dark characters, We Hunt the Flame needs to be on your TBR.

★ ★ ★ ★


Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Signal to Noise
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Series: N/A
Pages: 272
Publisher: Solaris
Release Date: February 10th 2015

      “A literary fantasy about love, music and sorcery, set against the background of Mexico City.
    Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends — Sebastian and Daniela — and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…
    Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?

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Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise combines music, nostalgia, and magic in a novel that takes readers on a decades long journey of heartbreak and healing. Signal to Noise alternates between the late 1980s and 2009 Mexico City. In 1988 Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela are outcasts. Too weird to be accepted into the popular crowd, the three friends find solace in one another. When Meche discovers her records are able to weave magic, she enlists the help of her friends to change their luck. Fast forward to 2009 and Meche is returning home for her father’s funeral. She hasn’t seen Sebastian and Daniela for decades, but the sting of their betrayal still bites. As Meche deals with her father’s passing and the resentment she still carries, she unexpectedly runs into Sebastian. Meche has spent the last two decades trying to forget what happened the year she and her friends discovered magic, but realizes no matter how far you run from home or for how long, your personal ghosts will always find you.

Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel is at its core an ode to music. If you are any kind of music lover, there is plenty to enjoy in this one. Meche is a bit of a music snob, but her love for music is contagious. Music brought her closer to her father and is what led her to Sebastian. Even when these relationships imploded, music was always there to soothe her. I love that Moreno-Garcia chooses music as the mode for magic. Music can instantly transport you to another time and Moreno-Garcia shifts between two different timelines with such ease using music as a constant in both timelines.

This isn’t a novel where characters make the best decisions, but their choices feel human. As teens, Meche and her friends are bewitched by the idea of magic. Not-so-secret crushes and far-off dreams no longer seem impossible. But as Meche, Sebastian, and Daniela begin to discover just how much power they have, it becomes difficult to draw a line between righting wrongs and exacting revenge because you like the power. Their friendship, once the strongest relationship in each of their lives, begins to crack. As readers slowly learn what caused Meche to leave Mexico City and what ultimately broke apart this friend group, she returns as an adult who hasn’t much changed. She’s still moody and abrasive, unable to let go of all the hurt in her past. As she sorts through her father’s belongings, she is forced to confront her feelings about him, the kind of father he was versus the kind of father she needed him to be.

I really enjoyed Meche and Sebastian’s scenes together, as kids and adults. They never quite understood their feelings for one another, but the tension Moreno-Garcia incorporates in their interactions as adults makes for some compelling interactions. As a reader you could feel the weight of the past pushing down on both of them. Sebastian is waiting for Meche to remember what they used to have while Meche is fighting to regain her equilibrium. She’s survived all these years without him by forgetting. There’s something to be said about how Meche views the past as it feels very much like she’s seeing things from a convoluted viewpoint. She doesn’t want to remember, but still hangs on, tooth and nail, to all the resentment.

Signal to Noise‘s timelines build upon each other, creating a story of love and loss and second chances. With engaging characters and a moving storyline, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut is as enchanting as the magic found within its pages.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★