Debut novels can be tricky, and in the fantasy realm, debuts frequently define entire careers. Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara marked him as a leading proponent of high fantasy; Susanna Clarke’s towering Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell established her reputation as a master of Victorian fantasy; Neil Gaiman’s solo debut, Neverwhere, defined his trademark wry humor and knack for mythologizing everyday life; and China Miéville’s King Rat sparked his career as a progenitor of today’s ethically complicated urban fantasy. In each case, the expectations established by the success of these authors’ debuts irrevocably shaped their future work. Debuts carry power. In this vein, the inventiveness demonstrated by both Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand and Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths carries fascinating implications for the future development of their individual styles.
These two novels are, in some ways, polar opposites: Suri’s tale revolves around two isolated, naive people whose personal relationship might save the world, while Rowland’s protagonist is a storytelling traveler who wields his enormous trove of global mythologies to save his own skin. Suri’s world is self-contained within Empire of Sand’s pages. Rowland casually references entire continents and magics that are never visited or explained, giving the impression of an unknowably massive universe that surrounds this story that takes place almost entirely within prison cells.
Suri’s Empire of Sand follows her headstrong protagonist, Mehr, the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an Amrithi woman, as she navigates the deadly conspiracies and complicated politics of a Mughal India-esque empire. The Amrithi are desert nomads who claim divine descent and have a special connection to the natural world, and are thus viewed with scorn and fear by the ruling elite. When Mehr’s uneasy position within her father’s court grown untenable, she accepts a marriage proposal from one of the empire’s mysterious, feared mystics and is thrust into an even more dangerous world. As she tries to unravel the secrets of her new husband, Mehr begins to discover the true extent of her powers and the dark secrets at the heart of the empire. Suri’s tightly focused, propulsive story blends multiple simultaneous storylines without resorting to flashbacks or post-hoc descriptions. This style is evocative of George R.R. Martin but unfolds on a much more intimate scale, and sleeping gods take the place of Martin’s dragons.
By contrast, Rowland frames the entirety of A Conspiracy of Truths as a recounting of an elderly raconteur known as Chant, whose adventurous wanderings are put on hold when he is arrested on suspicion of espionage. Chant wades through the hilariously byzantine bureaucracy of Nuryevet, a country ruled by powerful queens and plagued by all manner of superstition, and peppers his life story with various forms of folk tales, complete with different narrative voices and linguistic characteristics. Rowland conjures tension out of the interminable prison sentence as Chant must both determine why he was arrested in the first place and who he can actually trust in order to avoid execution. The sheer variety of linguistic forms at play contributes to the overwhelming scale of Rowland’s world, and the overall conceit of the book as a story recounted to one of its characters is reminiscent of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles. However, Chant is a much more approachable character than Kvothe, and the world he evokes through his stories hints at a world as grand and varied as any in contemporary fantasy.
The next step for both writers is to determine which aspects of their debuts they will sustain, and which characteristics they will jettison or warp as they continue. Will Suri fill her next novels with tense relations between misguided mortals and a sleeping divine? Is Rowland plotting a lineage of Chants as protagonists of their future stories? At this stage, it is impossible to say how either writer’s follow-up effort will unfold, but both authors have demonstrated more than enough to be worth that second look.