REVIEW: The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri
Dear Tasha Suri,
It pains me to write this review of The Oleander Sword (book two in the Burning Kingdoms series, which began with The Jasmine Throne), because while this isn’t a terrible book, The Jasmine Throne was my favorite book of 2021, as well as the most romantic and lyrical book I read in last year, and I had such high hopes for its sequel.
The Oleander Sword begins with a prologue in the POV of a new side character, Kartik, who is sweeping a courtyard in the Parijati imperial palace in Harshinghar when he overhears a conversation between Prince Chandra, the “spare” to the heir to the Kingdom (Aditya), and the high priest, Hemanth. Hemanth tells Chandra to protect his sister, the royal princess Malini, asking “Have you ever seen a girl of greater purity, my prince?” Though Chandra doesn’t answer the question, Kartik does, in his heart. Malini is the purest girl he’s ever seen.
Chapter One then begins and the story shifts to the present day. When we last saw Malini, she had just used an opportune moment—Rao’s revelation of the prophecy that she would be the one to name Parijadvipa’s next leader—to crown herself as Empress. Now Malini travels with an army comprised of soldiers and princes from all the kingdoms of the empire. All the kingdoms except Ahiranya, Parijatdvipa’s oppressed former enemy.
Malini misses Priya constantly from a great distance, but she has to keep her feelings a secret. When they last parted near Ahiranya, Malini promised Priya and Priya’s childhood sister, Bhumika, that if she succeeded in attaining power for Aditya and deposing Chandra, she would free Ahiranya in return for Ahiranya’s support now. Bhumika and Priya agreed, and as this book begins, Bhumika allows traders from Malini’s retinue into Ahiranya’s borders, while Chandra, whom Malini is battling for the crown, loses his own traders through magical means.
Malini believes in keeping her promises (not just to Priya and Bhumika, but to everyone she recruits); her word is her bond. But she cannot express her yearning for Priya except in unsent letters (all but one—Priya’s revealing response puts a stop to Malini’s private communications with her). Queer relationships are forbidden in the Parijati empire, and an empress is the last person who can break such a taboo.
As for Priya, she is now a temple elder in Ahiranya, with considerable magical powers including the ability to halt the spread of the rot that plagues Ahiranya’s people and its crops. She leaves the politics to Bhumika, who is far more adept at them, and focuses on that. While she misses Malini badly, she accepts that life has taken them down two different paths. Even if Malini asked her to join her, Priya doesn’t feel she could abandon her people when they need her aid.
Back in Harshinghar, Chandra and Hemanth debate how best to lead their war. Chandra has burned many women to produce magical fire, but the priest is convinced that the burning of a scion of Divyanshi—such as Malini—would grant them greater power, particularly if she rose to the pyre willingly. Chandra wants to kill Malini rather than win her consent, and whether he can be persuaded otherwise isn’t clear.
There’s also a debate among Malini’s generals, this one about how to handle the High Prince of Saketa, the one holdout kingdom leader who refuses to cooperate with Malini. He is firmly allied to Chandra because Saketa’s crops are infested with rot and his people therefore depend on food supplies from Parijatdvipa.
The high prince and his people reside in a maze-like fortress. No one who leaves ever comes out. Malini doesn’t think there’s a point to a siege, but she concedes to her general, Lord Mahesh. She needs Mahesh’s support too badly, and it’s evident that he would rather follow Aditya, who is now part of Malini’s retinue but still a retiring priest of the Nameless faith. Mahesh and others among the princes and lords who have joined Malini are sexist, and it’s easy for him to undermine her.
The siege goes very badly indeed. Malini’s army is attacked by an army of priests wielding unnatural fire—flames that jump to people and attack them. Many in Malini’s army believe it to be the holy Mothers’ fire, the kind that resulted from the immolation of Malini’s ancestor Divyanshi and two other royal women and defeated the Yaksa during the Age of Flowers (a long-ago time when Ahiranya was Parijatdvipa’s oppressor). Malini disputes this but many of her men, including Mahesh, believe it, and that deflates everyone.
Malini herself survives the battle—surprisingly, she is saved by a tattooed priest. The priesthood is firmly on Chandra’s side (he has elevated them to power) so this is a mystery. In the wake of the battle, Malini sends a coded message to Ahiranya. Not a love letter to Priya, but a request for aid.
In Ahiranya, Bhumika is waging diplomatic battles on multiple fronts. The high born, who supported the insurgency against Parijatdvipa, now grumble about the loss in trade with the empire and want her to open the borders to Chandra’s traders. They don’t believe that Malini will defeat him. Meanwhile, the late Ashok’s rebels, now self-dubbed the mask keepers, demand to pass through the deathless waters again.
Bhumika and Priya confer on this last topic. The mask keepers aren’t biddable and not all are of the same mind about Ahiranya’s future. On the other hand, Bhumika and Priya need more temple elders to help them hold back the spread of the rot. And that need becomes more urgent once Bhumika persuades Priya to go help Malini as Malini has requested.
There is also some attention to Priya’s tightness with her longtime friend, Sima. It’s important to Sima for them to be more equal, to feel useful and included, so Priya invites her to join her on the journey to Saketa.
When they reach Saketa, Priya and Sima encounter numerous challenges. The biggest is gaining acceptance from Malini’s people. As Ahiranyi, they are hated and feared (especially Priya, with her magical powers). Further, Malini can’t acknowledge her closeness to Priya in public, and to help her, Priya must take a more subordinate position, one that allows Malini to command her to bow to effigies of the Mothers at a temple they stop in. It’s the only way to even half convince Malini’s men that Malini hasn’t made a grave error in allying herself to the Ahiranyi.
Priya and Bhumika had planned to communicate in the Sangam (a mystical realm where three rivers meet) but the ability disappears, and that alarms both of them. Communication resumes later, though, and Priya is much relieved. But that’s not the end of their troubles, only the beginning. Because Priya was “hollowed” by her passage through the deathless waters, and only now is she starting to learn what that hollowing means.
As I said, I was disappointed in this book. My biggest issue is that the romantic relationship stays in a holding pattern for much of the book. Priya and Malini don’t reunite until a third of the way through the book, and then the presence of Malini’s people prevents Priya and Malini from having much privacy, so for a long time the only significant thing that happens from a romantic standpoint is that they wish they could have time alone together.
I feel that their romantic feelings could have been reinforced more if their commonalities had been consistently highlighted as they were in the first book. The two of them are in different places in life now than they were in The Jasmine Throne, so I needed to be shown why they were still meant to be. I didn’t feel the romantic tension nearly as much as I had in the earlier book.
In terms of their relationship and in terms of Malini’s overall arc, this reads very much like a bridge book, written to set up a stronger book three. In the last 25% of the book, important developments take place in the Priya/Malini relationship (as well as in the larger political arc). But much of the preceding 75% drags romance-wise and that makes the ending feel like too little too late. Just about every other relationship in the book—Priya/Sima, Rao/Aditya, Rao/Lata, Bhumika and just about everyone in her world—is more engaging than the central one.
Another issue I had was that there was SO MUCH focus on the army. Reading about armies is just not my thing. I kept wanting to go back to Ahiranya, where everything is lush and green, and leave this dusty army of stodgy men.
What saves this book—to the degree that it’s saved—is Bhumika. I never thought I would say this, but her storyline was so much more fascinating and absorbing. Her situation was filled with high stakes and moving scenes, and her interactions with just about every person we saw her with—Rukh, Jeevan, Kritika, Ganam, her daughter Padma, and eventually others—created indelible scenes and powerful situations. The Ahiranya sections of the book reminded me why I loved The Jasmine Thorne so much, and how gorgeously Tasha Suri can write.
There is much else going on in the book that I don’t want to spoil, but I’ll mention a few things in brief. Rao is struggling with regard to his loyalty to Malini, since she doesn’t appreciate just how important she is to him in terms of his Nameless culture and faith. Chandra is also struggling, and boy, is he evil. But Suri made me understand where that came from to a degree, so he wasn’t quite as cardboard as he might have been. Chandra also gets married in this book, and I felt for his wife. In addition, Kartik’s role in the story is eventually revealed.
One more thing readers should know: this book is darker than The Jasmine Throne. There is some eerie and disturbing stuff that happens. Though I often hate scary things in books, I actually loved it here. It was so atmospheric and magical, in a dark way.
What can I say to sum up The Oleander Sword? It’s the weakest of Tasha Suri’s five books for me, but based on how it’s set up, I expect that book three will be a lot better. I will read it, definitely. Nevertheless, I’m bummed. C+.
Oh no! I’m still waiting for this book so I just saw the grade and did a tiny bit of skimming of the review. But boo. Expectations adjusted.
@cleo: Yes, it was such a bummer to me. In general, this has been the year of the disappointing sequel. I was just telling Jayne about the number of disappointing follow ups I’ve read this year, after having a great year last year. I went though my Goodreads “Read” timeline and counted seven books I was really looking forward to that were not as good as their prequels. And that’s not counting the books by favorite authors that weren’t part of series and that let me down. I’m trying to adjust my expectations for the upcoming Simon Jimenez, Naomi Novik, and Sophie Gonzales books accordingly.
@cleo: ETA: Please come back and let me know what you think of it when you read it. You might like it better than I did. A lot of people on Goodreads seem to feel that it tops the first one.
I’m upset… Like really upset. I haven’t finished it yet but I just feel like Suri didn’t follow through with the characterization she set up in the first book for the main characters. I’m OK with it being a bridge. I can even get over how long it took to finally have the characters alone together (even though it wasn’t believable at all)… But I am really trying to understand how Malini could so easily accept Priyas betrayal. I’m also not convinced that Priya would have been capable of what she did. Her devotion would have led her to cut out her own heart (does she physically have one?)
before she did that to Malini. It’s fine, I’ll be fuming over here.
With regard to how long it took them to get alone, that was totally believable to me—it made total sense in the context of the world Suri created. Malini had women around her even as a princess in the palace. For her to be alone as empress would be even more rare. Chandra was almost never alone either. It was their culture for women’s “purity” to be protected and guarded too. If anything, the fact that Malini and Priya never got caught was the part that seemed contrived to me. Surely they would have, with that many people around, and everyone using tents?
I was actually okay with Priya’s choice at the end. Her plan was to stab the blossom on the neck chain and hope that would meet the letter of the bargain. She wasn’t intending to stab Malini, but once Malini said that wasn’t her heart, she had no choice. Because that took away her out. The Yaksa made it clear that if Priya didn’t she would take over Priya’s body and stab Malini herself. If the Yaksa took over Priya’s body she could do worse than Priya would. She would have stabbed Malini in the heart properly. AND she would have harmed everyone else Priya cared about too. Including Rukh and Padma who are children. I also think Priya had reason to think that stabbing Malini as she did probably wouldn’t kill her.
I agree with you however about Malini’s quick acceptance of the situation. Even with her suspicious nature, we never once saw her doubt Priya so it came out of nowhere. And I wanted a clearer sense of why Malini changed her mind and decided not to “rise to the pyre” after all in the end. If the Yaksa were back and the Yaksa were behind what happened to her, and worse, were now doing something to her body and soul, and immolation was the only way to defeat them—then why not? Especially since her body and mind might be compromised and used against her people. This should have been explained better IMO.
In general, I thought that the ending was rushed. I thought that about the last book too, and about Realm of Ash as well. Suri has a tendency to rush her endings.
Lastly I have a prediction of some things that will happen in book three. These are pure speculation but in case you are interested.
I think Malini is being hollowed by the Yaksa and will gain the ability to enter the sangam. I think she and Priya may eventually even meet in the sangam.
Rao clearly has gained some kind of fire ability and will be instrumental in defeating the Yaksa.
Sima will be able to give Malini a clue or two about what the Yaksa are doing to her.
For sure we’ll find out that Priya being the only child born in the Hirana itself has imbued her with an ability none of the other temple elders have or have had.
I think Rao’s nameless prophecy that Malini would name the next leader of the empire hasn’t yet been fulfilled. I think Malini will step down and the prophecy will come true when she names the next emperor in her stead. And I’m guessing that will be Rao.
I would love to see a Rao/Lata romance, but I don’t know if that will happen.
END OF SPECULATION, BUT CONTINUED SPOILERS
Do you think Rao is queer? I wondered if his feelings for Aditya went beyond platonic friendship.
@Janine: you make a fair point. Now that I have had time to process the ending a bit more I can see the why’s a little better. But spot on with Malinis acceptance of the betrayal. I know I would be like wtf if my wife stabbed me… I think you’re also right that the ending was rushed and that is probably why it was confusing.
As far as the speculation goes I think you’re onto something with Rao. I think for there to be a future for Priya and Malini, Malini has to step down from the throne.
I 100% believe that Rao is at the very least queer. I think his devotion to Aditya was more than just childhood best friends. Even if nothing ever transpired, I believe he was in love with Aditya.
Yes same here with my husband! It would be hard to process and I would try hard to get to the bottom of it rather than jump to conclusions.
Agreed, that Malini can’t be on the throne for Priya and Malini to have a future. Also, the Yaksa are making changes to her (clearly because the knife wound burns unnaturally) and there’s no way she can be empress of Parijatdvipa if she gains the Ahiranyan temple type of abilities or the Yaksa make some changes to her appearance, which is entirely possible. I suppose Malini doesn’t have to step down voluntarily but I believe she will. For her to be deposed is too dark, I think.
Re. Rao and Aditya–it certainly read like that, didn’t it? And now that I think of it I think there may have been some indications in the first book that Rao was gay, when he kept denying that he was in love with Malini and pondering how his prince friend (not Aditya, the one who died in The Jasmine Throne) believed that he was.
@Harley&Roz: What did you think of the book overall, Harley? Did you like it as much as the first one? What grade/rating would you give it?
@Janine: guess I should first introduce myself as other half of Harley and Roz. I’m Roz, pleasure to meet you.
Overall I liked the story. As a queer person, I grew up with queer baiting and subtext being my life blood and reading all of the f/f fanfic I could find. I so appreciate that I can just pick up a book and see my younger self reflected in an adventure now. That being said, I’m still always looking for those queer stories that have fleshed out characters and Suri started off strong with The Jasmine Throne. I was stoked to read the second book and see where these characters would go, but I felt very underwhelmed with the character development of the main characters. The supporting characters got way more development than Priya and Malini even though half the book is from their perspectives. So it would have been nice if there had been more follow through. And the ending being so rushed was difficult for me. There is so much buildup throughout the second book leading up to these moments that I felt like something was taken away from me at the end. I’m looking forward to the third book.
My other half Harley is a published author and is currently working on a young adult novel. Unfortunately the editors are looking for books that are less than 80000 words and I wonder how much of that has to do with why Suri keeps rushing the ends of her books. I think this story would be better off in the adult category.
Overall 3 out of 5 stars.
@Harley&Roz: I think Tasha Suri has said something similar–that as a queer woman of Indian descent it was very hard for her to see herself represented when she was younger. The Burning Kingdoms trilogy was her dream project and she never thought she’d be in a position to publish it.
I agree that some of the supporting characters (Bhumika especially) got more development. That said I think Malini did develop some in her new position of empress, or maybe my perception of her did–we saw her in her element, maneuvering and scheming so as to survive. She did some of it in The Jasmine Throne but here we saw it in a more political context–the day to day role of leader as a woman, what that entailed as well as what the limits were. Maybe it was more shading than deepening, but it wasn’t bad at all, I just wish that at some point we’d moved on from that to something more personal (and I don’t mean just sex). Her confrontations with Chandra, Priya and Kartik near the end were all good but my reaction was one of “Finally!”
I also feel that Priya’s relationship to the Yaksa developed a lot. But I think what is key here is that I didn’t feel that Malini or Priya grew much, that their personalities shifted. They did so much of that in The Jasmine Throne, and very little here. I think that would have added so much, if there had been more growth. And I think there absolutely could have been, even in the same page count, more or less.
We could have seen Priya grow tougher from having to deal with the discrimination, and/or become lonely and starved for her cobbled-together family in Ahiranya, and/or have a moment or two of doubting Malini before coming to the conclusion that no, Malini is absolutely trustworthy, and reaffirming her commitment to her (in her heart, even if she didn’t get a chance to say so to Malini until things went pear shaped at the end). These things could all have been done and could have added so much.
With Malini I’m less sure how much could have been done, given her position, her single-minded goal to depose Chandra, and all the scrutiny she was under, how limited she was by all the people around her. I feel that this more than anything was what kept the romantic relationship in a holding pattern. Her role needed to play out that way, but it did restrict the relationship development a lot. More could have been done with her relationship to the priests along the way, though. That might have been a nice source of tension (I guessed why they were helping her early on, though, and that took some of the suspense out for me).
I don’t think the wordcount limit was why the ending was rushed, because the middle dragged. That makes me think that Suri hasn’t mastered pacing generally. And as I say the endings of a couple of her other books were rushed as well. Plus, this book is over 500 pages, which is more like 125,000 words. The fantasy genre gets a lot more leeway than other genres when it comes to wordcount.
BTW, have you read Simon Jimenez? He is gay and his books are LGBTQIA+ themed. I loved loved loved The Vanished Birds (an almost mythical SF novel). I just started The Knife Cuts Through Water, his new fantasy novel, so I can’t give an opinion, other than to say that it’s experimental and I’m kind of shocked anyone published something written in second person with first person voices as a kind of chorus. It took a little while to get into but I’m really liking it now. He is so creative, but start with The Vanished Birds if you are interested. It’s as good as The Jasmine Throne and it is a standalone (dark, though!).
I have a review here: https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-a-reviews/a-reviews/review-the-vanished-birds-by-simon-jimenez/