Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Last year I reviewed The Jasmine Throne and concluded with “Will I read the sequel? Not sure yet.” Well, thanks to NetGalley and Orbit giving me access to the eARC, the answer proved to be yes! I’m pleased to report that The Oleander Sword improves upon much of what I already liked about Tasha Suri’s first novel in this trilogy.
We pick up some months following the end of the first novel: Malini is prosecuting her civil war against her brother for control of the empire of Parijat. In Ahiranya, her love interest, Priya, is working with temple sister and fellow elder Bhumika following Ahiranya’s secession from the empire. Initially separated, events conspire to bring Priya and Malini back together, while Emperor Chandra resolves to crush his rebellious sister. Rumblings of old gods renewed mean that a mortal war may be the least of everyone’s worries.
It has been a while since I have enjoyed a military fantasy novel as much as this—or to be more accurate, a fantasy novel that depicts nations at war. Suri focuses less here on the logistics of campaign than the relationships among characters. I’m not knocking bean-counting fantasy novels if that’s your thing, but it is increasingly not for me. Whether we’re talking the star-crossed romance between Malini and Priya or the battle of wills between Malini and her generals, Suri delivers an ever-shifting set of circumstances that always left me wanting more.
At the same time, Suri delves deeper into the mythology of this world, and this is why I marked my review as containing spoilers: the yaksa are fucking terrifying. They land perfectly in that uncanny valley between human and eldritch horror: just human-like enough to feel relatable, except there is something so off about their conduct. Suri captures this perfectly by having the returned yaksa literally wearing the bodies of former temple elders. The yaksa are the type of gods who see humans as uninteresting except as worshippers. Their chilling amorality is, to me, a thousand times worse than a malevolent deity, because there is so little to bargain with when it comes to yaksa. Either you serve them or they wipe you off the board.
So whereas the magic in The Jasmine Throne was interesting and fresh but underdeveloped, here it becomes its own subplot, takes on its own life. Priya and Bhumika’s powers, the rot, and a deeper story of how the yaksa came to this world—all of it comes together quite nicely. To make things even juicier, there are no heroes in the building: the people who drove the yaksa from this world long ago? They worship either a nameless god or deities who demand that women willingly throw themselves into a fire to ascend. So, that’s not a great choice either….
Indeed, “there are no good choices” might sum up the theme of The Oleander Sword quite nicely. This is a book about sacrifice, both willing and unwilling. It’s about second chances and grand mistakes, as well as incredible gambits that fail more often than they succeed. It’s a book about the cruelty of doing what is right instead of what is easy.
So much of this book feels like Suri read a lot of classic fantasy and then said, “OK, but let’s make it diverse and make it my own.” You’ve got your multiple POV characters. You’ve got your maligned heir to the throne attempting to take what’s hers backed by a prophecy. You’ve got your priesthoods and religions and various gods ranging from merely “burning women at the stake” to “transforming you into an Ent if you piss them off.” You’ve got your two main characters in love but of course they can’t be together because reasons.
Basically, The Oleander Sword is catnip for fantasy readers. If, like me, you read The Jasmine Throne but were on the fence, give the sequel a try. I love it when I take a chance on the second book in a series and it elevates my opinion of the series and the first book. Now I’m excited for book 3.