Markswoman: A mostly-solid debut

Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra fantasy book reviewsMarkswoman by Rati MehrotraMarkswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Markswoman, the 2018 debut from Rati Mehrotra, is mostly a YA fantasy novel with a post-apocalyptic Earth background and sci-fi elements sprinkled in for flair. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and though it doesn’t always succeed, the characters and their world are interesting and Mehrotra’s prose is compelling.

Kyra, an orphan newly initiated as a Markswoman in the Order of Kali, has spent the majority of her life training as an elite warrior and learning to wield her kalishium blade — a short sword which has telepathic abilities. The Order took her in after her entire family was slaughtered, and has trained her in various deadly arts under the tutelage of their leader, Shirin Mam. But dissent swells in the ranks, led by the ambitious Mistress of Mental Arts, Tamsyn, who takes over the Order when Shirin Mam is unexpectedly found dead. Kyra, convinced that Tamsyn killed their leader, flees and finds herself in the company of the Order of Khur, her female-only order’s male-only counterpart. If Kyra is to avenge her mentor’s death and the murder of her family, she must summon all her strength, courage, and self-discipline with the assistance of a young Khur assassin named Rustan and his own mentors, who have much to teach her about the world outside her Order.

Markswoman takes place in Earth’s distant future, long after a globally-devastating series of catastrophes and wars have altered Asia’s coastlines and the entirety of human society. So long after, in fact, that new geographical boundaries have been drawn up, though some place-names like Peking and Irkutsk, and the Hindukush mountain range, linger. Markswomen in the Order of Kali are known and feared throughout Asiana, and the Marksmen in the Order of Khur no less so, though the Order of Kali regards the Order of Khur as being inferior due to their gender. Kyra quickly discovers otherwise, and in fact, it would seem that the two Orders would have much to teach one another if they could only get along — a concept Mehrotra treats earnestly, with no ironic authorial winks.

Much of Kyra’s teaching and experiences seem to be oriented around assassination, though the Order of Kali is supposed to provide protection of various kinds to anyone who requests their services, and her friends train in different disciplines like herbalism alongside martial skills. A broader focus of the application of those peace-keeping or protective skills would have been welcome, especially since Kyra lacks self-discipline and true focus beyond her pursuit of revenge, though her time with the Order of Khur is instructive. Rustan’s self-doubt after his first assassination goes wrong is credible, especially regarding a drastic shift in his personality afterward, and it’s clear that his task of training Kyra is as much about training himself. Neither one of them relishes the idea of taking a life, even as a last resort, so I couldn’t have picked two people who are more poorly suited for the morally-questionable life of an assassin, and yet here we are.

The trouble with trying to juggle fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalyptic elements within Markswoman is that, frequently, any two of those elements work well together while the third falls by the wayside. More often than not, the sci-fi component is the odd man out; the occasional mentions of the Ones from the stars (who, long ago, brought telepathic metals to humanity before mysteriously retreating) and the Transport Hubs jarred me out of the narrative flow, and never quite meshed with the rest of the novel. My hope is that Mehrotra further explores the Ones in the planned sequel, so that their influence on humanity can become more than just window dressing or a justification for how ordinary humans on a futuristic-yet-pastoral Earth have access to extraordinary technology and weapons.

As the first volume in the ASIANA duology, Markswoman does a good job of introducing readers to the world of Asiana and its characters, as well as setting up questions and dangling plot-threads for the second volume to resolve. I look forward to finding out what lies in store for Kyra and Rustan, and other Markswomen and Marksmen, and I’m really curious as to whether the hints of the world that came before will be expanded upon in satisfying ways.

Publication date: January 23, 2018. An order of magical-knife wielding female assassins brings both peace and chaos to their post-apocalyptic world in this bewitching blend of science fiction and epic fantasy—the first entry in a debut duology that displays the inventiveness of the works of Sarah Beth Durst and Marie Lu. Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family. When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof. Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is razor thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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