Sometimes I try to be fancy with my reviews but I’m just gonna cut straight to the chase with this one: The Oleander Sword was absolutely incredible–not just a stellar novel in its own right, but also a sequel that improves upon its (already excellent) predecessor in almost every way.

I don’t even know how to review this because I honestly don’t have a single bad thing to say about it. Everything about The Oleander Sword worked for me. It’s such an ambitious novel; it takes big leaps–with its characters, its plot, its worldbuilding–and it sticks the landing with every single one of them. The world feels so much more expansive in this installment, which is exactly what you want out of a sequel. Because Suri has already adeptly laid out a solid foundation for her world and characters in the first book, the sequel allows us to delve more into that world, and to get a broader view at how its pieces fit together. What’s more, The Oleander Sword takes seriously the ramifications of the events of its predecessor; where The Jasmine Throne planted some important seeds for us, The Oleander Sword allows us to see them grow. Maybe this doesn’t seem all that praiseworthy–aren’t all second books of a series expected to follow up on the events of the first?–but it isThe Oleander Sword is impressive not just because its excellent as its own self-contained story, but because it delivers on what its predecessor sets up. Suri’s writing promises, and then follows through.

Onto the characters, who are the beating heart of this book, and whom I ADORED. Of course, I have to start with Priya and Malini, whose dynamic just blew me away.¬†The Oleander Sword¬†is a much more romantic book than¬†The Jasmine Throne, and it is so much the better for it. I say this not just because I love reading romance, but also because the romance adds a real sense of stakes and gravity to the story.¬†Priya and Malini’s romance is tender and heartfelt, extremely personal to both them, but at the same time it’s inextricable from the political power dynamics that they find themselves instrumental to. Their relationship cannot exist outside their political circumstances precisely because it is very much part of¬†shaping¬†those circumstances. And let me tell you, it is just SO damn compelling to read about!!!!!! The intimacy! The honesty! The angst! More than anything, I found it all to be incredibly moving.¬†Suri has such a deft hand when it comes to writing about these characters’ feelings and vulnerabilities; they never feel anything more, or less, than¬†human.

I’ve talked a lot about Priya and Malini, but I also want to spotlight some of the other character dynamics that we get here. One of my favourite dynamics–one that was a real pleasant surprise for me–was the relationship between Rao and Aditya. We got to see a bit of these two in the first book, but the way their dynamic evolves in this one was so interesting. Aditya is very much still his elusive self, a little aloof and a lot inwardly focused; what changes here is the way Rao relates to him, and the way that the events of the plot alter their dynamics. And I loved getting to hear more from Rao, too. I felt much closer to him this time around, and could really sympathize with how adrift he felt amongst all the political machinations he’s caught up in. I also want to mention Bhumika, who is an absolute standout, as per usual; we’ve always known her to be ever competent and resourceful, but this book sees her challenged to her core. I don’t want to give too much away, but her POV was easily one of the most poignant ones of the book.

Finally, I want to mention the writing, because Suri’s prose is just luminous. I don’t know how she does it, but there is something about Tasha Suri’s work that is always so extremely readable. Her prose is easy to read but never plain or boring. It has a real sense of grace and economy to it; it says what it needs to say and says it well.

The Oleander Sword was a lot of things–emotional, engaging, well-paced and -plotted–but what stood out to me most after finishing it was how epic it felt. The story of this series has grown so much more expansive with this second installment, and I cannot tell you how unbelievably excited I am for the final book. Like, if the second book has already done this much, then I can’t even begin to imagine what the third one will do.

Thanks so much to Orbit for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!

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#1: It’s a romance that plays with the tropes of romance

I don’t mean to make this novel sound like it’s Not Like Other Romance Novels, but I just love the way that it flips the more conventional gender dynamics of the male rake who learns to let go of his of rakish ways because he falls in love with the female love interest. In this novel it is our female lead, Seraphina the rakess, who is A Lot: oftentimes prickly and defensive, loath to let anyone in too close to her–a “rakess” precisely¬†because¬†she doesn’t want to let anyone in too close. In contrast to Seraphina, we have the ever patient and understanding male lead, Adam, who is emotionally open where Seraphina is closed. Which leads me to my next point…

#2: Its male lead isn’t an emotionally repressed alpha type

THIS. I’ve been reading a lot of historical romances lately, and I’ve just become so deeply, deeply bored by emotionally repressed alpha male leads. I never much cared for them to begin with, and the fact that they seem to be everywhere in the historical romances I’ve been reading has pretty much reduced my tolerance for them to zero. I want male leads who are nice and kind and soft!!! Maybe it sounds dumb to say that I just want male characters who are Nice, but they’ve been so rare to find lately that I feel like it needs saying.¬†The Rakess¬†has exactly that–a male lead who is Nice–and let me tell you, it is an absolute breath of fresh air. I love how honest and kind Adam is; he cares so deeply for Seraphina, and his actions always show that. She pushes him away, and he holds himself back from her, but even through all that, Adam is never cruel, never careless with Seraphina and her emotions. He is¬†good¬†and decent all the way through, and I just want to underscore how much I loved and appreciated that.

#3: It examines the role of being a woman, especially in a historical romance setting

Even though¬†The Rakess¬†is, by definition, a romance with a HEA, it also really deeply engages with what it’s like to be a woman in its historical time period (the late 1700s). I wouldn’t say it’s a depressing novel, but still, it manages to drive home how hard it is for Seraphina to inhabit her world as a woman, the way her choices are limited, and the way that she makes her own choices anyway, bearing the consequences. Peckham does an excellent job depicting this reality of Seraphina’s without making the novel feel too too morose or bogged down in misery. The novel is certainly not flippant in the way that it deals with these issues, but I really appreciated that there was that sense of gravity to lend the story, and especially Seraphina’s character, real stakes and depth.

#4: Its characters have fleshed out backstories

The two leads of¬†The Rakess¬†have such developed and complex backstories. Seraphina has gone through¬†a lot, and we hear about the ways in which she’s been hurt and grown over the years. Adam also has a history of his own, one which has informed the way that he has chosen to raise his family now. Both of them come with a lot of emotional baggage, and I love the way that, in coming together, they’re able to open up to each other and talk about the ways in which their histories have made them the people that they are now.


This is probably why this book is one of my favourite romances ever. (THE ANGST, Y’ALL!!!!) The reason¬†The Rakess¬†is so angsty–the reason its angst works so extraordinarily well and hits you so hard–is because the conflict in it feels real and believable. Romance readers everywhere know by now about the dreaded Third Act Conflict–everything will be going great in a romance until the third act rolls around, at which point the characters proceed to make the most idiotic, nonsensical decisions possible. What I love about¬†The Rakess, and what makes it so deliciously angsty, is that its conflict is absolutely¬†solid. There are real obstacles–both internal and external–that these characters have to deal with to be together, and they stumble on those obstacles, and those obstacles keep them apart and complicate their relationship. But you’re there the whole way because you¬†believe¬†in that conflict, because Scarlett Peckham crafts it so that it makes sense for these characters and their world–and because you want to see these characters deal with their conflicts and come out the other side together. I just adored it all–I will choose an angsty romance over a fluffy one any day, and the angstiness of this one was executed to perfection.

#6: It’s structurally interesting

I love the way this book is structured. We have our main present narrative, with Seraphina and Adam, which is interspersed with snippets of a book that Seraphina has written. But then, the narrative stops, takes a short break, and we return again to Seraphina and Adam, this time in a different place (I don’t want to get too spoilery). The way that Scarlett Peckham has structured this story is why, I think, its romance ends up feeling so believable: you get the sense that these characters have spent a considerable amount of time together, and have grown close over that time, just as¬†you¬†have spent time with and grown close to¬†them. It’s also why the novel’s conflict feels so solid; the characters are given time to grow close, but also to be apart, to miss each other, to want to come together again.

#7: Its romance feels EARNED

This one ties into points #6 and #7, but I wanted to talk about it separately because it’s the reason why this novel is one of my all time favourite romances. So let me say it again: the relationship in¬†The Rakess¬†feels SO earned. The characters go through a lot, and while their struggles and traumas are not treated lightly, the novel also allows them to find comfort in each other, to heal together–they go through a lot, but that only makes their romance feel that much stronger when they¬†do¬†actively decide to be together. Peckham lays out the foundation for their relationship slowly and organically over the course of the novel, so that by the end what you’re left with is a romance that’s fully formed, one that feels so strong and grounded that you can’t help but root for and be invested in it.

#8: Its main characters have cool jobs!!!

This one is kind of a small bonus thing that I liked and wanted to mention because it adds a really cool element to the story. Seraphina is a writer and an activist for women’s rights (and in general), and those things are very much at the heart of her character in the novel. And Adam! Adam is an architect, which I just found so interesting and a nice change of pace from all the dukes and earls and marquesses. His work ends up playing into Seraphina’s project, too, and also really informs the decisions he makes throughout the course of the novel.

Anyway, I absolutely adored this novel. It’s my favourite historical romance ever, and I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.

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BOOK REVIEW: THE OTHER MOTHER by RACHEL M. HARPER (aka my favourite book of the year)

The Other Mother¬†is, to me, a perfect novel: a masterclass in character work and prose, skillfully structured and thematically rich.¬†It’s a multigenerational family saga, one that embodies just how capacious and powerful that genre can be. In saying that this novel is a “multigenerational family saga,” I’m also saying that it’s able to encompass so much: the thorny and complicated family dynamics, the tangled threads that by turns connect and bind these characters together, the change and growth from one generation to the next, and the expansive sense of time and place that is facilitated by a narrative that unfolds over the course of decades. What’s more, it all comes together with such impressive command;¬†it is a real testament to Harper’s skill that she is able to write a story that is so large in its scope and yet so¬†intimate¬†in its focus; the narrative is at once sweeping and minute, giving you access to a plethora of interconnected characters and colouring in their histories for you, but also allowing you to get to know and understand them in an incontrovertibly real and grounded way.¬†“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”–what we get here is¬†both¬†a sense of the whole and of the parts, of the family entire and of the person in particular.

“He wondered if time was a form of love, a way of dolling out affection in reasonable pieces, in parts small enough that you weren’t aware of their size, and of what was slowly disappearing from your own form as you gave them away.”

Part of why The Other Mother manages to so effectively balance scope with detail is because of the way it’s structured. The novel is split into seven “books,” each of which consists of seven chapters, and which focuses on a specific family member. We begin with Jenry, who is the linchpin of the narrative, and then branch out to the key characters connected to him: his mother, his “other mother,” his uncle, his grandfather, his other grandfather, and so on. And there is not a single section in the novel that is even close to lacking in any way. Certainly, some characters are more important than others–Juliet, Jenry’s “other mother,” in particular is the real heart and soul of this book–but regardless of how much they shape the narrative, every one of them gets a section that fleshes out their inner life and highlights their place within the novel’s core family. Usually, with stories that switch POVs from one character to the next, I tend to dread that switch because I inevitably get attached to a character and don’t want to leave them for another’s POV. With The Other Mother, though, that was never the case. Part of why I adored this novel is because I trusted it so much: I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and so I was never nervous going from one POV to the next. That is to say, I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and her writing never let me down. (That being said, my favourite sections were easily Juliet’s and Jasper’s–Jasper’s especially I will probably never forget; it was that poignant.)

“She fingers a groove in the soft wood, wonders why time wears some things down, makes them softer, more malleable, yet other things like bones and brick–things that make up structures, that are designed to carry weight–become more brittle.”

Implicit in everything I’ve praised so far about this novel is the fact that it is extraordinarily well-written. Harper writes with piercing clarity, her prose lean and lucid, allowing the story to organically and seamlessly unfold over the course of the novel. And she has such remarkable control of this story, too. A lot happens in The Other Mother–there is plenty of loss and grief, secrets and lies–and in another writer’s hands, it could’ve easily been a morose, overwrought melodrama. Under Harper’s control, though, the prose and tone are pitch perfect, measured without being cold, moving without being sentimental. Every once in a while, I read a novel that makes me want to stop for a second to process just how impressive its writing is, and The Other Mother is one of those rare novels. Scenes with dialogue–literally any conversation between these characters–are especially brilliant. You’re able to glean so much about these characters by how they talk, what they take from conversations, how they interpret what’s said to them, what they notice, and what they don’t. The way that Harper renders the minute details of her characters’ demeanour and mannerisms throughout these scenes is just exquisite; it’s what I mean when I talk about the piercing clarity of the writing, and what’s more, these details–observations, habits, quirks–recur throughout the novel, adding to the sense that these are fully fleshed out characters whose idiosyncrasies carry on throughout the years that the narrative spans.

“His mother used to always say, I can recover from any death but my own, but he thinks now that it’s the other way around: your own death is the easy one; what befalls the people you love most in the world, that is the most difficult thing to survive.”

The last thing I want to talk about is the thematic focus, because The Other Mother is incredibly sympathetic and tender in the way that it approaches its very complex exploration of family. As I’m sure is evident from the title, the novel is interested in examining what motherhood looks like outside the bounds of what’s dictated by patriarchy and everything that attaches to it. In taking motherhood as one of its central thematic concerns, though, the novel is also able to more broadly interrogate and look at the family as a unit. It’s interested in asking what makes a “mother,” yes, but it’s also interested in asking what makes a family. We look at all sorts of family dynamics, here–mothers and sons, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters–and to be sure, none of those dynamics are ever simple or straightforward. It’s a book that very much underscores how family at once drains and sustains us, holds us up and lets us down, and the story is adamant in depicting these family members as flawed. After finishing the novel, I watched a bunch of interviews where Harper talked about how she really had to take her time with this novel because she wanted to be able to embody every character’s POV without judgement, regardless of whether she agreed with their decisions or not. And that’s really the crux of the novel, I think: you don’t agree with all these characters’ decisions, but you do sympathize with all of them, and understand why they made those decisions. The beauty of the story is that you always have to hold these two things in tension: the fact that these characters hurt each other, and the fact that they do so not out of malice, but out of love.

The Other Mother¬†is so many things, but more than anything it is a novel that is just brimming with love. Heartbreaking but hopeful, it’s written so feelingly, a product of such care and nuance on the part of the author, that what you get in the end is just nothing short of brilliant.¬†I cannot recommend it enough.

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