Sarah Zettel's writing has improved progressively over the course of her "Isavalta" series, and the latest "Sword of the Deceiver" is by far the best yet. It is a charming, and at times gripping, tale of love, power, and the clash of cultures and religions. Although set in the same universe as the rest of the "Isavalta" series, the events in "Sword" precede the events in the other books, and because the focus is on the kingdom of Hastinapura, it stands well on its own; readers need not have read the other books in the series to enjoy this one.
The story follows two main characters: Natharie, Princess of Sindhu, and Samudra, Prince of Hastinapura. Samudra, brother to the Emperor, is sent on a year-long mission to receive oaths of alleigance and tributes from Hastinapura's subject kingdoms. It is on this mission that he comes to Sindhu, where, having demanded a hostage from the royal family, he meets Natharie, who is the eldest daughter of the king and who has offered herself to save the younger members of her family. During her forced stay at Hastinapura, Natharie quickly learns that there is much more to Samudra than meets the eye, and the two develop a tenuous bond. But Natharie is also the target of Hastinapura's High Priest, whose religious fervor has caused him to single her out, as the people of Sindhu worship the Awakened One, and the people of Hastinapura worship the Mothers. And amidst all of this are the political power plays present in any court, and into which Natharie finds herself inextricably drawn.
There are also several other side characters whose actions and decisions help shape the outcome of the plot, and this was one of the things that I liked about the development of the story in "Sword". Events did not seem contrived, but rather were the natural outcomes of perfectly reasonable decisions made by half-a-dozen different characters, all of which converged into an explosive ending. All characters were fleshed out well, and even the "villains" had their points that the reader had to respect. The plot unfolded at a good pace, and it was easy to sympathize with Natharie and Samudra as they worked through their respective struggles.
The writing was very fluid, descriptive, and often beautiful to read. There were a few references to Indian myth in this novel, which I thought were aptly applied; some of the philosophical discourses were interesting to read as well.
The only complaint I really had about this novel was the way the ending played out; I didn't feel like the central characters had much part it in, and considering that most of what happened was in direct response to them, it made it seem a bit disjointed. Also, some of the actions the characters take at the end didn't seem very believable, which was a departure from the way they were written earlier in the novel. But despite this, it was still a satisfying ending, and a read I would highly recommend.