In The Oleander Sword, the second novel of The Burning Kingdoms trilogy, Tasha Suri has produced an even more intensely involving and brilliant book than she did in The Jasmine Throne. That first novel richly explored the many selves and identities its characters had to adopt to survive as they strove to increase their power, whether worldly or spiritual or both. The Oleander Sword raises the stakes even higher by confronting the major characters with the price of their success. Each faces a brutal choice of sacrificing what is dearest to them to achieve a greater good or a higher ambition. This is an incredibly powerful novel that heightens the tension of these choices while also setting the stage for a conflict of even grander scale in the final volume of the trilogy.
The story opens as the rebel princess Malini, now claiming the title of empress of Parijatdvipa, leads her army against a major force of her brother Chandra, the emperor backed by the priesthood of the realm. The faith that guides the empire draws its power from the grisly burning deaths of highborn women who willingly sacrifice themselves to a terrible fate. Malini, having refused to make that sacrifice, moves ahead with her plans, supported by rebel factions, and at the opening of the novel appears poised to succeed in a major battle.
But her plans fail when a barrage of flaming arrows hits her troops. This is not normal flame but what appears to be a sacred fire that spreads wildly among her troops. It is a terrifying weapon, gripping her soldiers with the primitive fear that they may be following a false empress whom the gods wish to destroy. She immediately faces a crisis of confidence with the nobles who have supported her. Her every move from that point forward has to be shaped by the need to present herself not simply as a strong leader but as one favored by the gods and so destined to succeed in capturing the throne.
That means having to be especially careful with the one woman she has allowed herself to love, Priya, a ruler of Ahiranya, recently freed from domination by Parijatdvipa. Priya and her sister Bhumika have both endured dangerous rituals to become “thrice-born” and imbued with extraordinary powers drawn from the yaksa, the gods of their country. When we first see Priya in The Oleander Sword she is attempting to stem the “rot” in a rural village. This is the strange disease that ruins land and kills people as they are invaded by a woody, flowering growth that ultimately stifles life.
Priya finds that the rot is becoming so extensive that she cannot kill it but only freeze its growth, allowing people to survive in an altered state. So we see the limits of Priya’s power from the outset and the tension between her commitment to cure her people and homeland and the inner cost of using the power bestowed by the mysterious yaksa. Her struggle with spiritual power parallels Malini’s grasping for imperial power. In these opening scenes, both confront the limits of what they can achieve. Both will require extraordinary power and sacrifice to fulfill their life purposes.
When Malini calls Priya to join her in the battle for the throne, both feel the constant tension between their attraction to each other and the strict limits their roles place on them. Malini needs Priya both for their personal bond but also for her powers which can be used to give her an advantage in battle. But because of her power, Priya is regarded as a witch by many in Malini’s army, and every time the would-be empress tries to be alone with Priya she is shackled by the need for secrecy and the constant challenge to her legitimacy from some of the nobles in her army. Tasha Suri is absolutely brilliant in creating scenes in which personal feelings try to rise to the surface only to be beaten back by the constraints of the roles and behavior that power requires. This is a recurring theme in the story that is dramatized powerfully through many other relationships.
Another great driver of this novel is the need for sacrifice that faces each of the major characters. Priya’s sister, Bhumika presides over Ahiranyi in Priya’s absence but is shocked to find the mysterious yaksa coming to life in the bodies of dead humans, including that of her brother Ashok. In their eerie and threatening presence, they isolate Ahiranya from all trade and travel, want Bhumika’s infant Padma to raise as their own, and command all the nobles of the realm to gather for a great feast that will demonstrate their power in terrifying ways. But those tests lead up to an even greater sacrifice that Bhumika must make to protect her country.
Malini’s brother Aditya, who gave up his claim to the throne to become a monk, is still the favorite of many in the empress’ army and volunteers to take up arms to fight once more. But not to advance any worldly ambition of his own. He wants to lead a rearguard action that would allow Malini’s main army to advance. This daring move seems like a sacrifice he feels bound to make for the sake of his homeland and in service to his deepest beliefs.
The yaksa visit Priya on a spiritual plane and offer her the aid of their vast power to help Malini defeat Chandra’s army. But accepting this offer will require her to make a horrible sacrifice as the price she must pay. Meanwhile Malini talks to a high priest of Parijatdvipa who offers her a chance to achieve her dream of imperial power on condition that she agrees to a sacrifice only she can make.
All of these scenes perfectly capture the tensions and agony of facing the price that power, whether spiritual or political, exacts. Many writers try to depict personal sacrifices to achieve a greater good, but Tasha Suri dramatizes the human struggle to do this with an intensity I have rarely encountered in fiction.
This may be the middle book of a trilogy, but there is none of the feeling of a story merely bridging to a greater climax that compromises a lot of middle books. Suri has deepened the drama and stakes of the story on all levels. She so vividly brings to life the human bonds tested and broken by ambition, power politics, war, religious belief and the mingling of supernatural forces in mortal lives. While delivering a strong story of war for the throne of Parijatdvipa, it sets up an even grander scale of coming conflict as the yaksa return to Ahiranya. The Oleander Sword is a great book in its own right that certainly gains from its position in a trilogy but that can also be read on its own.