Tasha Suri is back with book two in her latest trilogy and whoa boy, are you in for a treat. The Oleander Sword, her second entry in the Burning Kingdoms Trilogy, doesn’t just simply continue the story, it elevates it, creating a profoundly complex and delicate reading experience, one that you’re not likely to forget anytime soon.
I don’t know about you but anything that has happened to me the last couple of years may as well have been from the 1950s, that’s how my brain works these days. So, because of that, I thought it’d be prudent to go back and read my REVIEW of The Jasmine Throne, book one in the Burning Kingdoms Trilogy, if for any reason, just to remind myself how much I loved that book. It’s clear that it was one of my favorite books last year, and had some of my favorite characters in all of publishing, so how does The Oleander Sword stack up?
Here’s the summary…
The prophecy of the nameless god—the words that declared Malini the rightful empress of Parijatdvipa—has proven a blessing and curse. She is determined to claim the throne that fate offered her. But even with the strength of the rage in her heart and the army of loyal men by her side, deposing her brother is going to be a brutal and bloody fight.
The power of the deathless waters flows through Priya’s blood. Thrice born priestess, Elder of Ahiranya, Priya’s dream is to see her country rid of the rot that plagues it: both Parijatdvipa’s poisonous rule, and the blooming sickness that is slowly spreading through all living things. But she doesn’t yet understand the truth of the magic she carries.
Their chosen paths once pulled them apart. But Malini and Priya’s souls remain as entwined as their destinies. And they soon realize that coming together is the only way to save their kingdom from those who would rather see it burn—even if it will cost them.
It seems impossible to summarize the convoluted events that take place in this book, certainly when it comes to the main players, or, I’m just not smart enough. Either way, I’ll leave it to other more capable reviewers to do so but what’s important to understand is that everything about this sequel, from a storytelling aspect, is elevated to an extremely high level, making this a uniquely gratifying reading experience.
Leading the way once again is our holy trinity, with Priya, Malini, and Bhumika finding themselves in somehow even more precarious situations than before. Each of them, sacrosanct in their own special way, spend a considerable amount of time justifying their own existence it seems, ultimately trying to prove the ends justified the means, that none of their ascensions were a mistake. Congruently, all three are torn between heavy shit like love and duty, personal desire and destiny. At the bedrock of such things is of course sacrifice, and while I won’t say who sacrifices what and for whom, I will say it’s definitely on the menu for all three and that middle chapters aren’t usually happy ones, as we all know.
This books heart, its myocardium, beats a little differently than The Jasmine Throne, and the reason for that is the evolving relationship between Priya and Malini. Notwithstanding Priya’s promise to Malini, that she would come when called upon, their feelings for each other grow with each passing day, threatening to disrupt any and all destinies unfulfilled. It doesn’t take long to see that the coquettish back and forth from the first book has been replaced with pure carnal desire; in fact, they find it hard to think about anything else.
Yes, Priya and Malini invented “It’s Complicated”, and every moment they are apart is abhorrent, and each moment they steal together is earned and wrought with danger. And as furtive as they think they might appear to be, it’s plain to see as The Oleander Sword, despite its grim nature, is one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read, dripping with intimacy and drenched in longing. You won’t find two characters more in love with each other, but their reunion cannot be separated from the events surrounding them, some in motion, and some yet to be revealed. And it is a reunion as the book starts where the story left off, with both women apart, separated by not only a great distance, but duty as well.
Thrice born Priya has returned to an Ahiranya on the mend, not only working through her still new magical abilities, but along with Bhumika, trying to return a rot infested independent Ahiranya to prosperity. Both women have their hands full, with the senior Sister juggling not only leadership, but motherhood as well. With the state of things still undetermined, and trade relationships fragile at best, Bhumika is very much keeping things afloat while she waits for hopeful Empress Malini to keep her promise, and offer aid from a newly managed Parijatdvipa.
The only respite from the daily and insistent politicking, coming at her from all sides, comes from her still young child and in the form of a reemergence of sorts from the Age of Flowers. But is it what it appears to be, a Yaksa blessing? Coming to save the people of Ahiranya? Or is Bhumika’s loyalty and steadfast pursuit of a sybaritic state about to be tested in the most challenging of ways imaginable? The answer, I have no doubt, will both surprise and enthrall you.
As for Malini, she’s miles away but certainly no better off as she continues her march towards an inevitable confrontation with her Emperor Brother, Chandra. Still believing herself to be preordained by the Mothers, she steadily gathers allies along the way who believe, with some trepidation mind you, her path is the righteous one. She’s surrounded herself with all sorts of able bodied folks; each having a skin in the game, expecting something in return should Malini succeed. Yes, if Malini does manage to see this quest fulfilled, she’s going to have enough IOU’s to fill a briefcase.
These chapters also give characters and relationships like Rao, Prince of Alor, and ex-crown Prince Aditya a chance to shine thanks to a fair amount of thoughtful and insightful page time to them both as individuals, and as friends. We also get considerably more from characters close to Priya and Malini such as Sima and Lata, both loyal and steadfast in their support of their respective wards, and each who provide some welcome levity and guidance to Priya and Malini, occasionally in need of such things. You should know that an already big cast gets even bigger as Tasha introduces more into the fold; standouts include Lady Raiza and her awesome archery guardswomen.
This brings me to the shear amount of POV’s (13) in this second book, which is astonishing on two levels, endeavor and execution. Endeavor because even attempting to tell a story from this many angles, shows you Tasha is at the top of her game. And execution because trying is one thing, achieving, that’s something else, and Tasha absolutely crushes it. In fact, I’m not sure you can nail multiple POVs any better than she has, and as someone who appreciates all angles, and who sees an economy to it, I couldn’t be happier with the end result here.
You must appreciate the fact that it doesn’t always work, sometimes, when the room is too full, too noisy, the story can become unintelligible, but not here. That’s because Tasha’s writing feels Shakespearean in a way, where the reader understands something is being implied, conveyed even, in a language that you have previously understood. This helps us understand the story even at the most basic level, despite its metaphoric language and multiple voices; it is connecting us to something that we already know in our guts.
This connection between Tasha and her characters helps us understand the many concepts throughout the story as we passively recognize those relationships as ones from our own lived experience. We understand love and loss, we understand victory and defeat, courage, and fear. Basically, this is Tasha doing what she does well, seeing the world for what it is and creating a tapestry so obviously personal, divinely so, and we are the benefactors of such creativity and skill.
But not to worry fans, despite the incredible amount of action, politicking, otherworldly magic, family heretical drama, world building, and diverse theological inferences, the center of the book, its adhesive, is the relationship between Malini and Priya. It’s not a spoiler to say that yes, these star-crossed lovers do find their way back to one another as Malini sends for Priya, cashing in that promise Priya made at the end of book one. The build up to this moment is a masterclass in anticipation as Tasha does the hard work of making both them, and us, earn it.
And how does she do that? Good old-fashioned heartbreaking, painstaking, scrupulous yearning. These two women MISS each other like nobody’s business and every time they are afforded the opportunity to do so, their thoughts drift to one another. And through missives which may or not be billet-doux in nature, Malini becoming a student of the Birch Bark Mantras, and astute observations from those close to each, it’s clear they are no longer two individuals, they’ve become one. So, all this syrupy preamble leads to the inevitable, Priya and Malini standing face to face, the only problem is, there always seems to be a damn audience!
But it’s written beautifully, where you enter a state of sensory deprivation, where everyone and everything else fades into obscurity, and the only two people on earth are Malini and Priya. They don’t occupy each other’s space as much as they suck up all the oxygen in the room, leaving any beseeched audience members feeling a little milquetoast. And if you thought the waterfall scene from book one was sweltering…
So, what’s the bottom line?
Apropos of nothing, if you’ve never read a stitch of either book, there’s objectivity to this material that just cannot be avoided, that the storytelling on display here is very high level. There’s simply nothing pedestrian about any of the relationships or events in this book, no languid posturing, no pubescence, and no prodigality. Every relationship is nubile, with a heaviness hanging over each and every interaction, put simply, there’s very little room for bullshit as every word has meaning and every action carries weight. It has to, as no outcomes are certain, loyalties on all sides are tested, and deception is a constant shadow, always lurking, all of this culminating in an ending that will leave you in a state of shock and awe.
Tasha takes some awfully big swings here, not only intellectually, but with a sensibility we still don’t get enough of between two or more women in books. Does she succeed? You bet your ass she does, The Oleander Sword is as remarkable and pertinent book you’re likely to read this year. If it doesn’t move you in some way then I don’t know what to tell you. On a personal note, 2022 has been challenging to say the least, comparatively of course. And like for so many others, books continue to be a refuge for me, and it’s storytelling like this that keeps me mindful that entrenched in all of us, is a yearning for more, for something better.
That’s a lot of words to simply say, The Oleander Sword is a perfect book. It’s out now so click HERE and order a copy today!
Cover art by Micah Epstein.
About the Author
Tasha Suri was born in London to Punjabi parents. She studied English and creative writing at Warwick University and is now a cat-owning librarian in London. A love of period Bollywood films, history, and mythology led her to write South Asian–influenced fantasy.