Whenever you read a really good series opener, it’s fairly easy to start wondering if the quality of that first book was somehow a fluke. To question whether there’s any chance that its sequel could ever live up to the heights of its predecessor, or if it’s doomed to always pale in comparison. Someone coined the term “sophomore slump” for a reason, after all, and most of us who read a lot of fantasy can easily name more than one series whose middle installment was….let’s just say did not turn out to be everything we hoped it could be.
This is why it’s especially satisfying when a sequel arrives that not only exceeds our expectations but blows them out of the water entirely, holding on to the things we loved about the original novel but adding compelling new pieces that make the story even richer and more compelling than it was before. Such is the case with Tasha Suri’s The Oleander Sword, a complex, immersive follow-up that’s packed with surprises, sacrifices, and characters that are easy to root for even when they are often difficult to like.
Suri’s The Jasmine Throne was hands-down one of the best fantasy releases to hit shelves in 2021, a doorstopper of a series opener that immediately set up her Burning Kingdoms trilogy as one to keep a close eye on in the fantasy genre space. Set in a fully realized magical world inspired by ancient India, its sprawling, complex story features half a dozen major POV characters and multiple distinct kingdoms with their own clearly defined cultural histories, political hierarchy, and religious practices. (It’s an amazingly rich and lived landscape, is what I’m saying.)
Thanks to the thorough world-building that takes place in Jasmine Throne, Oleander Sword is able to hit the ground running, weaving together the battle for the fate of a kingdom, the future of the series’ central relationship, and the threat of an encroaching magical disease known as the rot into something truly epic in scope. Wrestling with issues of theology, politics, magic, family, and love, this is a sequel that takes everything you loved about the first book in the series and cranks it up to eleven before essentially smashing it on the ground while you watch. (And I mean that in the best possible way.)
Princess Malini, having now declared herself Empress of Parijatdvipa, is marching to war against her fanatical brother (and current emperor) Chandra, with a ragtag coalition held together by little more than her own will. Struggling to maintain control over a group of generals who doubt her every move and faced with her brother’s uncomfortably powerful new magical weapon, she seeks out one of her own in the form of the lover she left behind. Malini’s selfish need to use Priya’s magic for her own ends is undercut by the very real desire she has to be with her again.
Priya, for her part, is now a temple elder of the mystical province of Ahiranya and her elemental magic is stronger than it’s ever been. Alongside fellow elder Bhumika, she works to control the spread of the rot, make peace among the various factions of their people—including the militant vigilant rebels known as mask-wearers—and map out their vision for a new and improved future for their kingdom. But when Malini summons Priya to her side, she finds herself torn between her duty as a caretaker of her homeland and her feelings for the other woman, who very obviously wants Priya to use her magic to help her claim her throne, whether that’s ultimately in the best interest of Ahiranya or not.
Malina and Priya’s relationship remains the emotional center of this story, as both women furiously push back against the circumstances in which they find themselves and dream of a better future where others like them won’t have to fight quite so hard for their due. The question of whether their dreams—for both Parijatdvipa and Ahiranya—can coexist with one another is something that only the final novel in this trilogy can answer, but Suri pulls no punches about the fact that a traditional happy ending has likely never been in the cards for these two, no matter how much we might want it. As they’re each forced to make difficult choices and struggle with the question of whether to put their countries before their love for each other, their relationship grows increasingly messy and complicated.
Yet, Suri is careful to show us repeatedly why these two women would fight so hard to be able to choose one another, and the satisfaction that comes from being seen and accepted for who you are. Malina is selfish and power-hungry, Priya is occasionally literally monstrous and their feelings for one another do not change who they are at their cores. But what perhaps makes their relationship so sharp-edged and wonderful is that neither woman would ask the other to be anything else.
At its heart, The Oleander Sword is a study of power and empire: from its exploration of existing power structures within Parijatdvipa to its critique of the very concept of power itself. Who is allowed to have it? Who is seen as too weak to wield it? And what happens to the everyday people that exist outside these spheres of influence, but who must live their lives in its shadow anyway? We see repeatedly in this story that power—whether to exert control or to make change—always comes at a cost. It requires sacrifice, and the real questions are merely who will be asked to pay for it, and what they’ll be forced to give up.
This is a novel full of angry, often unlikeable women, the sort of women who aren’t set up to thrive in a world built by and for men, one that values their silence and obedience more than their skills and intelligence. But Suri gives these characters—from Priya and Malina to Bhuminka, Lata, and Sima—the chance to be strong in very different ways, to claim their own power, and to fight for the future they want (for what is perhaps the first time in any of their lives). And though its ending is the emotional equivalent of a knife to the heart for almost every major character, it’s hard to see how things could have gone any other way. (Which is part of the reason it’s so great.) It’s going to be a long wait for the trilogy’s third installment.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.