Thursday, November 17, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri

Yearning and suspense by the bucketload in the Burning Kingdoms' second instalment

Last year, I said that The Jasmine Throne was one of the strongest in an impressive year of diverse fantasy, introducing a new fantasy world full of history, intrigue and queer yearning. Now, we get to see how the story continues in The Oleander Sword, and this time both the yearning and the suspense have been turned up as high as they can go. Spoilers are ahead for the first book of the series, and it's very much worth starting there if you haven't already.

Like the first volume, The Oleander Sword largely follows the intertwined journey of two women, both of whom now occupy powerful roles in their respective lands. Malini, the imprisoned princess of The Jasmine Throne, has received a prophecy and declared herself empress in opposition to her despotic younger brother's rule, and now marches on said brother with support from several of the kingdoms that make up the empire of Parijatdvipa. In the former Empire territory of Ahiranya, former maid Priya has also come into an inheritance, becoming the first Elder in a generation and gaining the magic needed to turn back the Rot, a sickness which still threatens to overrun her people. For Malini, the rise to power is welcome but comes with the frustration of trying to keep the loyalty of men as a woman in a highly patriarchal society; for Priya, political leadership is an unwanted challenge, mostly left to her fellow elder and temple sister Bhumika while she takes a more hands-on approach to Ahiranya's problems.

Despite going their separate ways, and taking their countries down potentially conflicting paths, Priya and Malini are of course still obsessed with each other, and it doesn't take long for the understated but ill-advised personal letters to start. Once that boundary has been crossed, and with a difficult siege lowering the morale of her army and casting doubt on her prophesised leadership, it's a small step for Malini to call Priya to her side, and ask for her help in battle so that she can enact her promise of Ahiranya's future freedom. If there wasn't tension dripping off every page every time these women think about each other, Priya's answer would be an obvious "no thanks", but, of course, she's easily enough convinced. Within the first act, then, Suri reunites her would-be lovers and leaves the fate of Ahiranya to be told largely through the eyes of Bhumika, with a broader cast of occasional POV characters brought in to round out the storytelling gaps.

Almost immediately, the story in Ahiranya takes a turn for the pant-wettingly terrifying, as the resurgence of magic brought about by Priya and Bhumika ends up having unexpected consequences. I think it's better to go into this section unspoiled about the details, and so I'll talk around what exactly happens here, but there's a progression of the body horror elements from the Rot, an illness which causes people to grow progressively more plants on themselves until they are all plant. The idea of people sprouting flower buds and mossy growths is unpleasant enough, but it's taken to the next level when the origin of the illness and its intended purpose is explained. The events in Ahiranya also make us reconsider any views we might hold about the land being a straightforward underdog to Parijatdvipa's unjust rule: while there's no justification made for colonisation or prejudice, the events of the book also confront us with the shortcomings of backward-looking restoration, especially when the past one is trying to restore is not a well remembered one. Bhumika's storyline here is heartbreaking and offers her very little to celebrate, as she comes up against forces that are far, far beyond her own power.

Priya is cut off from her homeland, so its problems don't reach her for the bulk of The Oleander Sword. Instead, she joins Malini and is thrown into her own political quandry as other leaders treat her with everything from grudging acceptance to outright hostility due to her heritage and her magic. The pair are at their best when they are supporting each other through the challenges of patriarchy, and while The Oleander Sword doesn't close the gap between their overall goals, Priya's higher status as an Elder does bring greater equality to their relationship, even if her power is rarely exercised and goes mostly unrecognised by the men around them. Make no mistake, though, the real leveller is how often both of them think about that time they kissed during The Jasmine Throne, and how much they both want to do it again. The fact that the pair of them are in the middle of an army is brought up as an impediment to further kissing right up until it isn't any more, and if this feels a little convenient, let me reassure you that both of these disaster lesbians have plenty of ways to make new impediments to kissing all on their own, and oh boy do they ever make things complicated by the time everything has played out.

All the elements that make Suri's fantasy writing so interesting are on display here, particularly her depiction of how women wield power in patriarchal societies and particularly how they do so around norms that separate out the two genders. It's particularly satisfying to watch the men around Malini make jokes about how they'll have to bring their daughters to court instead of marrying them off, assuming that this will just be a different way of using daughters to serve their personal interests, only for one such daughter to immediately display political ambitions of her own and side against her father's betrayal. Malini's own power rests on a prophecy from the Mothers, a deified group of immolated women whose blessing could be twisted to "require" her own death, if certain religious authorities have their way. Priya, gets both the freedom and the prejudice of being a total outsider, with power that can't be taken away but can be dismissed and used to invoke disgust. It doesn't help that - surprise! - the Rot has left the borders of Ahiranya and the kind of magic Priya wields is now linked to a very immediate threat for the rest of Parijatdvipa, rather than a generations-ago conflict. Throw in some grappling with the limitations and drawbacks of that power, and you've got some great tension right there. With added dread, because oh god these plant powers, where are they going to lead, nowhere good it seems.

The Oleander Sword doesn't conclude so much as it sets up the pieces for its final volume. Will anyone kiss in that one? Maybe, but not without even more emotions, and perhaps a giant battle for the future of the entire world playing out in the background. If that sounds good, then I'll see you there.

POSTED BY: Adri Joy hasn't written her byline on the bottom of a review for so long that she might as well create a new one. She is a co-editor at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, an international politics nerd, a converted Londoner and a whippet owner, who would live her life submerged in the ocean with a waterproof e-reader - if she only had gills. Find her on Twitter @adrijjy or Mastodon