Markswoman is Rati Mehrotra’s debut novel. It’s also a book I really wish I’d enjoyed, because its big idea—sword-wielding telepathic lady assassins enforce the law while having internal politics that might involve murder!—is the kind of thing that feels like it should be tailor-made to appeal to me. And yet, reading Markswoman felt like a chore, a book that could only be read a couple of pages at a time, because its voice was about as compelling as old cardboard.
And it leaned heavily on some very familiar elements.
Markswoman is a book that draws on both the mainstream tradition of epic fantasy and the science-fictional landscape of the post-apocalypse. (Though we should probably take a moment to acknowledge here than the mainstream tradition of epic fantasy, with its common element of looking-back upon a better golden age, is also in some sense a perpetual post-apocalyptic landscape—one deeply influenced by Tolkien, and thus by the landscape and literature of post-Roman Britain: a landscape and a literature both arguably shaped by people who lived among technologies they could no longer quite reproduce.)
The Order of Kali is one of five orders of celibate warriors (four of which are all-female) who enforce a centuries-old lawcode on the land of Asiana. The Order of Kali makes its home in the fertile Ferghana Valley, while other orders have less hospitable homes—the all-male Order of Khur, which the other orders look down on, makes its home in the middle of a desert, near (but not very near) the small oasis town of Kashgar.* The orders are composed of Markswomen (and Marksmen) who are trained to kill with blades made of a strange substance that bonds to its owner and enhances their telepathic abilities. These are assassin-telepaths, and they travel around partly through using Transport Hubs, ancient devices that only Markswomen (and Marksmen) know how to unlock and which near-instantaneously transport people from Hub to Hub.
Kyra is the youngest full Markswoman in the Order of Kali. She has a tragic past—which, according to the rules of the order, she’s supposed to put behind her—and lost her entire family to brigands. She’s sworn revenge. The head of her order, Shirin Mam, is her mentor, but shortly after Kyra attains full Markswoman status, Shirin Mam dies mysteriously and the order’s Mistress of Mental Arts, Tamsyn (who Kyra views as evil, manipulative, and ambitious), succeeds her. Kyra thinks—on the basis of not very much, actually—that Tamsyn murdered Shirin Mam, and flees with Shirin Mam’s sword. She fetches up by accident with the Order of Khur, after a bizarre experience with a Transport Hub, where she declares her wish to challenge Tamsyn to a duel to bring her to account for Shirin Mam’s death at the yearly gathering of all the orders and all the clans.
The Order of Khur assigns Rustan, a handsome and brooding young man, to help Kyra train for her duel. Rustan’s got his brood on because his elders were manipulated into ordering him to kill an innocent man, but this line of tortured guilt doesn’t really seen to go anywhere except to give him an excuse to be extra Broody and Tortured, and to make his calm judgmental superiority in the face of Kyra’s hot-tempered adolescent anger seem a touch hypocritical.
What’s the point of Rustan? Clearly the reader is supposed to find one, and to find in Rustan and Kyra’s mutually disrespectful interactions a reason to believe that they’re attracted to each other as people, and thus have pants-feelings in orders that swear them to celibacy. They have, unfortunately, zero on-page chemistry.
The novel is flawed from the point of view of structure, voice, and characterisation. Structure: it opens with action, and then puts Kyra back in the classroom—and not a particularly believable classroom/training setup for an order of magical special assassin-warriors, either—giving us long purposeless stretches in which Kyra’s mentor is Mysterious and Tamsyn is adolescent mean-girl levels of ominous. (Ominously juvenile. If she’s got everyone bamboozled by the force of her Mental Powers, at least go the Jessica Jones-esque Kilgrave route, and not, “I feel she’s bad. She doesn’t like me. She must be bad and manipulating everyone else!”)
Kyra’s reaction to the death of her mentor lacks depth, and her flight and subsequent Training Montage with the Order of Khur lack tension and force. They lack purpose, in part because Tamsyn-the-bullying-but-not-that-subtle-teacher isn’t a very frightening villain—honestly, where’s her support? She’s not a very good political operator—and in part because the narrative offers us very few reasons to believe Kyra’s right about who’s responsible for Shirin Mam’s death. I was waiting for a reversal or a reveal that never came. Apparently you can Just Know that the mean girl is the murderer. Moreover, Kyra and Tamsym’s ultimate confrontation is deeply unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint: it resolves nothing.
In terms of voice and characterisation, the novel lacks the prose-level verve and confidence that can cover for a shit-tonne of other flaws. It lacks the ability to give us believable characters: Kyra is an incoherent mess of a human. What does she want at any given time, and does she have half a good reason to want it? Most of the time, it’s a mystery. Rustan is even more of a cipher. Tamsyn? I’m left a little incredulous at just how limp a villain she is: she has absolutely no interiority, and the reader has no clue either what she’s doing, really, or what her goal is. (“Power!” the Evil Witch—you know, the one that lurks within all ambitious women—cackles madly, but honestly, like that?) The secondary characters definitely don’t stand out as individuals, except for the one who’s apparently colonised by a worm of toxic masculinity in a world that doesn’t seem to have patriarchy as we know it.
Markswoman reads, apart from some elements of its worldbuilding, like a book that was assembled from a kit. It lacks personality, and the pieces (and the tropes) don’t all fit, or they fit together badly: the IKEA not-quite-tested model. It’s not cooked all the way through, because I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the narrative arc here: what’s the story that Markswoman really wants to tell? Who—or what—changes?
Coming to review Markswoman, I find myself examining my biases. This is the second time in less than six months I’ve had a very similarly reaction to a Harper Voyager book inspired by Central Asia, influenced by epic fantasy, and written by someone whose background or family background is, per their bios, from the India-Pakistan region. (The other book was Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint. Interesting sidebar: India and Ireland have some historic similarities when it comes to colonialism, right down to having An Experience with partition—apart from the thing where we’re way tinier, were colonised by Anglophones earlier, and benefit from white privilege in the modern day.) Am I judging these books harder because their authors have names where I need to double-check the spelling?
Maybe. Or maybe these books fill a need in an audience that was like the need pretty badly done F/F stories set in science fictional or fantasy spaces filled for me, for a while. (I judged them for being badly done. They could be, hell, so much better. And they had to be, to get over the transom at most mainstream presses. But they filled an emotional need, and I still probably judge them less harshly than their merits deserve.) I don’t know.
But I don’t think that I’m doing anyone any favours by pretending that I don’t have biases. Anymore than I’d be doing anyone any favours by pretending that I found Markswoman… well, entertaining or accomplished.
There’s some promise here in the blend of the fantastic and the science fictional, and some good ideas lurking down the back of the sofa. There are hints of a good book in Markswoman. With more attention to voice and characterisation, Mehrotra could yet do her material justice. I hope that next time out, she does.
*One of the many strange bits about reading Markswoman are the familiar names. Centuries have passed, and the Ferghana Valley isn’t known by any other name? (The Chinese Records of the Grand Historian called this region Dayuan, around 126 BC.) Kashgar, Tashkent, the Thar Desert, the Deccan, these are all known by the same names by people (who all appear to speak the same language) eight hundred years after some great cataclysm that was preceded by extraterrestrial contact? Maybe it only seems strange to me because one of my more frustrating hobbies, which is trying to read good histories of Central Asia in English, so these place-names are nearly as familiar to me as Athens and Rome.
Markswoman is available from Harper Voyager.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.