Title: The Oleander Sword (The Burning Kingdoms #2)
Author: Tasha Suri
Publication date: August 16, 2022
One Sentence Summary: As Malini and her army, with Priya supporting her, march towards her crown, Priya’s home of Ahiranya sees the return of long-gone creatures.
Spoilers for the first book, The Jasmine Throne, may lie directly ahead.
The Oleander Sword is a worthy second book in this trilogy. While some of it was a little too predictable for my tastes and the romance didn’t feel woven in quite as well and deftly as I had expected, I adored the story this book told. The romance took hold of my heart, making it ache for the losses and sacrifices Malini and Priya are forced to deal with, as well as other characters. The battle for Malini’s crown is fierce and terrible, but had some nice twists and turns, even if some of it wasn’t quite as glorious as I had expected. What I loved best, though, was the subtle push and pull of the followers of the mothers, in which women must willingly burn to produce magical fire, and those like Priya who have had to hollow themselves to let in a green sort of magic. It felt like a tug of war between nature and destruction, life and death, and carried through the entire book. The Oleander Sword is beautifully written, softening the sharp edges, offering a deeper look into a fascinating world with characters who must make painful choices page after page.
The Oleander Sword picks up the story approximately a year after the events of the first book. During that time, Malini has taken her army ever closer to Harsinghar to face her brother Chandra and claim the crown for herself as the first empress. But being a woman in power means her grasp on it is slippery. Her male generals will bow to her, but it doesn’t stop them from maneuvering around her when it suits them, because she’s female. In Ahiranya, with the regent dead, Priya and her temple sister Bhumika lead the country as the Elders, but putting a country that’s been decimated by the rot isn’t easy, and there’s only so much their magic can do. Malini and Priya are never far from each other’s thoughts, but their lives become heavily intertwined when Malini asks Priya and her magic to join her, and Priya knows she must go, unwittingly leaving behind a country about to face a double edged sword.
Where The Jasmine Throne felt more like setup, introducing the reader to the world, politics, struggles, religions, and characters, The Oleander Sword felt like a full jump right into the action. There are battles and scheming, romance and loss, and two women pulled between loyalty for their countries and their love for each other. The Oleander Sword reads like honey, sweet and slow, even when the battles and losses and monstrous acts occur. The writing flows thick and sweet and soft. Considering the events contained on these pages, it felt a little at odds sometimes, but it also made reading this akin to a dream.
Malini, Priya, and a collection of minor characters tell the story, some more interesting than others, but all of them always driving the story forward and revealing something new. They all have their own loyalties, their own loves. They’re real and rich and detailed, coming to life page after page. I felt immersed in their lives, feeling their joys, heavy losses, and conflicts as so many of them were pulled in opposite directions. Despite how sweet and beautiful the writing was, its also bittersweet as so many of them lost what they wanted and were forced to make horrific choices. My heart broke for so many of them, and I just kept wanting something good and right to happen for them.
The central relationship is between Malini and Priya. Theirs was an excruciating slow burn in the first book, but is really ramped up in this second installment. They’re gorgeous together, clearly so in love with each other they sometimes can’t seem to think of anything else. Sometimes they felt too much like they were mooning over each other, especially Malini to the point where she almost seemed blinded by it. Their romance was so delightful and so sweet, but it’s woven into a fierce battle, making it sometimes jarring when they chose quiet interludes instead of doing some much needed planning. They worked beautifully together, though, their trust in each other amazing despite all the time and distance their tenuous relationship had to endure. The romance wasn’t woven in quite as well as I had hoped it would be, and sometimes came off too strongly for the events that were going on at the time, so it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for me. But I loved the heartbreak of this doomed loved story, and I’m anxious to see what happens to them in the last book. It was great to have the romance soften the edges of the story, but sometimes I wished the edges had been sharpened a little more.
My favorite part of The Oleander Sword were the conflicting religions. The people of this world follow the nameless, the mothers, or the faceless, and those in Ahiranya follow the temple and revere the yaksa, creatures that have been gone for a long time. But the primary focus seems to be on the mothers (women who burned to save their country) and the magic of Ahiranya given to those who travel thrice through the deathless waters and survive. These people, like Priya and Bhumika, can sense the green, have power over plants, and can halt the rot that grows in people and places. It made it feel like The Oleander Sword was about nature and destruction, and both could be used for good and ill. It appears that this trilogy might be building up to a final clash between the two, and how that impacts Malini and Priya, as they’re on opposite sides, will be interesting, and probably heart wrenching, to see. But I really loved all the conflict in this book, the country vs. country, the idea of a god vs. god, nature vs. destruction. They all added layers upon layers, complicating the lives of the people and how all these countries are supposed to one day live in peace together. It was great, though, to see the priests and other religious figures playing big roles in this book, even if some of it made things just a little too easy and convenient sometimes. They were an interesting layer that definitely held my attention as I tried to figure out what they wanted.
But The Oleander Sword is also a story of sacrifice. So many of the characters are required to sacrifice, and the ones Priya and Bhumika must make felt the most painful. Power comes with a price, and it comes for all of them. Some sacrifices are paid willingly, some are forced, and it was wonderful, but still painful, to watch them play out, knowing there’s no other choice. Loyalties are pulled and the hard paths are taken. Nothing is easy for any of the characters, all of whom have to deal with the consequences of their choices and the choices of others. It was painful and heartbreaking and sometimes I just wanted it to stop, but it was really done in the most beautiful way, where the characters had no choice and went nobly to their fates.
If there’s one thing I had to pick as my least favorite part, it would be that I might have read too many fantasy books. As much as I wanted to be blown away by this book, because the story and writing are beautiful while stinging all the way, too much of it felt a little too predictable to me. There’s always something bad lying in wait around the corner, and the fact that the characters never really seem to catch a break or have one little thing go their way grew a little tiring and predictable. There were, though, some really great twists and turns and some unexpected surprises to balance it out. But I expected so much more from this book that the predictability got in my way of enjoyment at times.
The Oleander Sword is a brilliant sequel to The Jasmine Throne, offering fierce battles, heartbreaking conflicts, a doomed yet intense love story, and sacrifices that rock the worlds of so many characters. It reads beautifully, softening the harsh story it tells, where women are pinned down no matter how in charge they are, where sacrifice is a necessity rather than an option, and where gods and religious ideologies walk the earth, making demands that have the power to tear and destroy. It beautifully sets up events for a powerful conclusion I can’t wait to read.
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Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit and NetGalley for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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