“The only binds are those that you lay on yourself, or those that you allow to be laid on you.”
Kyra has been training to become a Markswoman for her entire life—and finally, she has her moment. Markswoman opens with the young apprentice on her very first mission—a blood mission, to assassinate the son of the man who killed her entire clan. Kyra succeeds in her mission, though not without doubts and not without being sorely tempted towards mercy for her mark.
And so, Kyra is inducted fully into the Order of Kali and becomes what she has always dreamed of becoming: a fully ordained Markswoman, deployed by her Order to keep the peace in the lands under their jurisdiction, acting as judge and executioner to settle disputes, injustices, and blood feuds. Kyra knows she should be happy, but she is wary: her hesitation to kill weighs on her soul, and she cannot find the strength to be truthful to her mentor and tribe leader, Shirin Mam, the Mahimata of the Order of Kali. It doesn’t help that the Mahimata’s right hand, the cruelly cunning (and exceptionally gifted at the mental and fighting arts) Tasmyn seems to know every weakness Kyra possesses, and mocks her for it.
Still, Kyra is proud to become a member of the Order of Kali, and vows to become better, stronger, and wiser in order to do her station proud.
In the land of Asiana, there are five such Orders, each governing different regions of the continent; each Markswoman and Marksman chosen by their diety, and possessing the ability to telepathically bond with a kalishium blade—their katari. The Order of Kali keeps to its fertile valleys and caves, while other Orders—such as the Order of Khur, the only clan of Marksmen—set their watch over harsher desert territories. Though each of the Orders are scattered across vast distances, they are not completely isolated: a network of ancient technology portals connects them (though some of the doors are failing), and beyond that, all Orders meet at conclave occasionally when there is cause to share news, ideas, or to plan against threats.
The latter spurs this season’s conclave, as a renegade warlord has been amassing powerful weapons of mass destruction and an army to wield them… the same renegade warlord who wiped out Kyra’s clan, and whose son Kyra just assassinated.
As Kyra struggles to separate her feelings for her actions, balancing her desire for vengeance for the murder of her parents and her people, against her desire to be a good Markswoman and member of her Order, the unthinkable happens: the Mahimata of Kali dies. Murdered, Kyra is convinced, by Tasmyn, who has become the next Mahimata of the Order.
Fearing Tamsyn’s cruelty and what chaos she will wage on the world as the leader of the Order, Kyra flees from her home, bearing not only her katari but that of Shirin Mam. Using her mentor’s blade, Kyra is able to open a portal that has long been forgotten and finds refuge with the Order of Khur in the deserts of Asiana. With the help of her new allies—including a young Marksman named Rustan, Kyra prepares for the conclave, where she will face Tamsyn and have justice for the death of Shirin Mam, or die trying.
Markswoman is the debut novel from Rahi Mehrotra, and it is a smart, entertaining (albeit uneven) first book in a planned duology. Set in a south Asian alternate post-apocalyptic far future world, Markswoman takes familiar epic fantasy tropes and blends them in an own voices narrative and intriguing premise. Seriously, who doesn’t want to read about female huntress-assassins with telepathic sword-mind-melding powers? In an alternate Indian fantasy world, drawing from a Hindu-inspired pantheon of gods and monsters, no less? Suffice it to say, the premise and promise of Mehrotra’s world was enough to entice me—and I am happy to report that Asiana delivers, at least from a world-build-y perspective. The novel is reminiscent of some of my favorite worldbuilding tropes: it's a bit Shannara and a bit Dark Tower, what with the post-apocalyptic science fictional setting, complete with old, dusty portals, magic, and rare metals that enable their wielders to telepathically bond with their weapons, for better or for worse.
On the character and writing front, Markswoman also borrows heavily from familiar tropes, subverting some but sticking to the epic fantasy playbook in other ways. Kyra appears to be the chosen one in many ways—Shirin Mam has singled her out since childhood for reasons unknown, and later it is only Kyra who can save and use Shirin Mam’s katari for protection. (Shirin Mam’s katari is like the Elder Wand of the Markswoman universe.) But Kyra herself isn’t actually the chosen one—this becomes a little clearer as the novel progresses—nor does she have exceptional power, grace, or gifts. What Kyra has, to keep the Harry Potter allusion going, is determination and faith in a leader who is perhaps not entirely deserving of that trust. (Shirin Mam = Dumbledore.)
Things fall apart a bit with the writing style—which is a little choppy—and with other characterization, particularly with the love interest, Rustan, and the novel’s villain, Tamsyn. Rustan has very little character to offer; we know he’s feeling intensely guilty about following orders and killing a man, and… he hides a secret about his past, and… he is handsome and of course falls for Kyra after the requisite amount of “I hate you” foreplay. Similarly, Tamsyn leaves a lot to be desired in a villain. For one, readers don’t actually know that she’s done anything wrong (other than being kind of a jerk to apprentices and playing mind games with them). Kyra distrusts her instinctively because Tamsyn is mean and superior at occlumency—I mean, mind speaking—and so much of the novel hinges on this instinctual belief that Snape killed Dumbledore. (You know what I mean.)
Still, rocky first novel-isms aside, Markswoman is an engaging, consuming fantasy novel (I inhaled it in a single sitting). I cannot wait for the second, concluding volume in the duology.
In Book Smugglerish, 7 kataris out of 10.