Readers! I am thoroughly delighted and only a bit fangirly to present an interview with the lovely AWARD-WINNING Tasha Suri of Empire of Sand fame, which won Starburst Magazine’s inaugural Brave New Words award for best debut novel in 2019. It was up against some very excellent books, so huge congratulations to Tasha.
EDIT: It/Tasha also won the Best Newcomer in Fantasy award at the recent British Fantasy Awards through BFS, so again – even more and huger congratulations! We get the feeling Tasha may be going places…
A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood.
An empire built on the dreams of enslaved Gods.
Mehr is a girl trapped between two cultures. Her father comes from the ruling classes of the empire, but her mother’s people were outcasts, Amrithi nomads who worshipped the spirits of the sands.
Caught one night performing these forbidden rites, Mehr is brought to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, who try to force her into their service by way of an arranged marriage. If she fails in their bidding, the gods themselves may awaken and seek vengeance…
I could gush about the book – and Tasha, as I had the pleasure of meeting her at Worldcon – all day, but instead I’ll jump straight into the interview.
Hi Tasha, and thanks so much for agreeing to answer a few of my questions. First off, I’d like to start with one of the most imaginative aspects of Empire of Sand and one that I fell in love with immediately: the dreamfire. Where did the idea for this come from?
Hi Anna! I’m really glad you loved the dreamfire. I was partly inspired by the northern lights: I wanted it to be breath-taking and strange but naturally occurring. It was also heavily shaped by Hindu theology. Shiva, god of destruction, is often depicted in sculptures as Nataraja or ‘Lord of the Dance’ (which has NOTHING to do with Riverdance I promise). In those images he dances with a fire that creates and destroys the universe. I think in a way the two concepts collided together without my say-so and made the idea spark in my brain, which is always the most fun way to come up with magic systems.
What was the seed of the idea you worked from? A character? The dreamfire itself? Something else?
Before I started, I knew I wanted to set my story in a Mughal India inspired world, and draw from its politics, culture, art and aesthetics for inspiration. I became fascinated with the noble and royal women of the Mughal world, who lived veiled and cloistered, but also had immense political clout. Reading about them made the idea of Mehr come to life: a woman raised in privilege but with limited power, who would have to use cunning, wit and manipulation to survive. Once I had Mehr, the idea for the rest of the book finally started to come together. So I suppose research was my seed, but I wouldn’t have made it very much further without a character to build the book around.
One thing I found really quite poignant and unexpected in Empire of Sand was the sanctity of choice – how it feels to have that taken away and how it feels to make other, new choices, these of one’s own volition. Is this something you wanted to tackle from the start or did it come about as you were writing?
When I decided to write about the power of magical vows and coerced marriage and slavery, I knew questions of choice would come up. But I don’t think I realised how important choice would be until I started writing and got to know the characters and the world. It ended up being very important to me – and to Mehr and Amun – to show how choices made in difficult circumstances, where there’s no right choice or good choice available, are as valuable and powerful as great acts of bravery.
Your depictions of the desert and what it takes to survive there were brilliantly realised. Did you do a lot of research or are you, in fact, a clandestine desert-dweller yourself?
I wish. I’m an obnoxious city dweller. I know how to handle the London Underground but anything vaguely resembling Not A City is completely alien to me. Everything set in the desert is a product of imagination, research, and some uncomfortably hot family holidays to Rajasthan.
Amun and Mehr – I was all ready to hate Amun for his betrayal of his people at the start, and then almost without realising I was in love with him. How did you do that?
I think my love for him bled through, probably. He’s a very nice boy, isn’t he? At his heart Amun is very honourable and kind, but his pretty crappy life has forced him – and everyone around him – to view him as monstrous. The fact he still tries desperately to do good, even when he can’t see how he can be… I think that conflict is both something a lot of us can empathise with and also make you (well, me, definitely) want to wrap him in a blanket and give him a big hug.
What would happen if the gods actually woke up?
The dreams of the Gods shape the world, so waking up would… end the dream. The fabric of reality would go through such a massive upheaval that it would either end the world, or change it so completely that it would be as good as ended. Grim, I know.
Realm of Ash is out soon and it’s being advertised as a companion novel, not a sequel. What made you decide to move ahead in the timeline and focus on Arwa’s story instead? (Personally I was hoping for more Mehr and Amun kissing scenes.)
I felt like Mehr’s arc was finished, honestly. I also love series that move between generations or from character to character – as is pretty common in romance. Juliet Marillier does this really well in her Sevenwaters Trilogy too. I also really wanted to explore more of the Ambhan Empire and different aspects of the world’s magic, and Arwa’s story gave me the opportunity to do that. As for kissing scenes – I promise wherever Mehr and Amun are, they’re very happy and making out. 😉
What’s next for Tasha?
I’d really like to continue exploring the world of Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash further! But we’ll see what happens. Watch this space, I suppose?