Completed 7/29/2023, Reviewed 7/29/2023
Wow, another fantasy with a lot of politics and scheming which I actually loved. This time, the story is set in an Indian-like culture. The general plot is not that original, but the world-building, the characterization, and the prose are simply marvelous. The politics, while fairly complex, were easy to follow. There are a lot of characters, and the point of view jumps from chapter to chapter, but I had no trouble keeping track of who’s who and who was speaking. And the magic system is breathtaking. This book won the 2022 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for a few others. Definitely worthy of the WFA despite a strong list of nominees.
Malini is a princess who was one of three women condemned to burn for traitorous activity against the emperor, her brother. However, she refused to willingly climb the pyre. The emperor exiles her to a ruined temple. The temple was once the home of the deathless waters of one of the empire’s subjugated kingdoms. Priya, a former child priestess of the temple and once born of the deathless waters who hides there as a maidservant, is assigned as the sole servant for Malini. When Malini discovers Priya’s true nature, their destinies intertwine as Malini tries to escape and overthrow her despotic brother while Priya ties to push the empire out of her homeland. Amidst the drama, a slow burning romance develops between the two women, but ultimately, their duties comes before pleasure.
There are a lot of themes explored in this book, primarily the subjugation of women. The despotic emperor fills his court with priests who believe in the burning of women as the original mothers voluntarily immolated themselves as sacrifices. But for this emperor, it is pure sadism. As a response, Malini tries to bring her eldest brother back to reclaim the throne, a claim he renounced when he became a monk of an alternative religion. Malini’s captivity stands in her way. She is governed by the vindictive mother of one of the other young women burned on the pyre, feeding Malini a drug that keeps her despondent, depressed, and eventually will kill her. Priya is her only hope of escape.
Priya is a fantastic character, a strong but self-doubting woman with some gifts from having gone through the deathless water once. Not a Mary Sue character at all, she must find the determination to help free Malini if there is any hope for freeing her own people. I really liked Priya for her strength and determination, despite not always feeling up to the challenges she faces.
The third main character, Bhumika, is the wife of the emperor’s regent. She is also a priestess of the temple and twice born of the deathless waters. Her character comes into play when the action really begins. Through her, we, and Priya, learn just how powerful the gifts of the deathless waters are.
I thought the world building was just phenomenal. Based on Indian folklore, Suri creates a vivid world of power and decay. The magic system is based on nature. When the characters really start to use it, it’s pretty fantastic. The prose is dreamy, but not over the top. There’s a lot of well described action to keep the pace moving. At over five hundred pages, this prose could have made this book a snore. Instead everything was vivid and immediate, a real pleasure to read.
I give this book four stars out of five. It’s an excellent book that makes you anticipate the sequels. The only thing that kept this book from being five stars is that, while really enjoying the main characters, I found I was never completely engrossed in them. Perhaps it was because Priya and Malini kept their feelings for each other at bay for so long, I too felt an arm’s length from really connecting with them. But just about every other aspect of this book is top notch. I’ve started so many trilogies lately, I don’t know when I’ll get to the second book of this one, but I probably will eventually. Highly recommended.