Markswoman

Rati Mehrotra
Harper Collins Publishers
January 23, 2018

A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The premise established in the first few pages of Markswoman makes for an immediately intriguing book. The book opens with a map of the world, complete with drawings of mythical creatures in various regions. Reading the book, I found fewer unicorns than this had led me to believe, but the map and drawings still piqued my interest in the magical world I was about to explore.

Marskwoman, Rati Mehrotra, HaperCollins, 2018
Markswoman tells the story of Kyra, the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, a sisterhood of assassins armed with magical knives they control with their minds. She is thrust into the centre of a deadly conspiracy when her beloved mentor dies, and Kyra suspects it was murder. Although the story is based on a community of assassins, death is not taken lightly. I didn’t think that the violence was particularly egregious and liked the way that death was explored, both through taking life and losing loved ones.

The world is built fairly quickly and efficiently over the first few pages. I developed a decent understanding quite early on about its general values and troubles. There were actually a lot of details woven into the story that I found to be really interesting. It seemed to be more inspired by non-Western religions than typical fantasy novels, which was a refreshing approach. And I liked that, in a world where social groups depend on their physical strength and skills to survive, academic pursuits are still highly valued. There are some points where this is established, but not carried through to the rest of the story, which was disappointing, but it seemed like a nice touch at the time. I liked how the magic in the story seemed simultaneously original yet familiar. It was easy to understand but also felt like I was learning about something new.

Generally, the story is well conveyed. I found it easy to read and follow along. The plot points are clear without being laboured. Even the action scenes, where everything is chaotic, with limbs flailing in all directions and magic there to complicate things even further, are written clearly enough that I got the full picture every time. All the major points of the story are well seeded from the beginning, with nothing happening unexpectedly enough that it stops you from believing the narrative.

Although I got a very clear picture of the present story world, there wasn’t a lot of information right away about the past, even though it had a significant impact on the story. I didn’t mind this, though, as it seemed more like a tantalising mystery than an unsatisfying lack of information.

In fact, I found myself somewhat disappointed by a lot of the revelations that came with the story’s history. In particular, some of the things that Kyra learned about her own heritage didn’t sit right with me. For instance, a major plot point is about a woman lying about having been raped. Kyra learns that her mother ran away with a man her family didn’t approve of, but said that she was kidnapped and raped to avoid shame. The jilted man then goes on to become one of the cruelest and most violent bandits in the land. This does nothing to encourage people to take rape accusations seriously and is particularly problematic right now when a number of people accused of sexual assault still hold positions of power in politics and media, and all kinds of other industries without being held accountable.

The relationship between men and women in Markswoman is interesting, but also a little confusing and, at times, uncomfortable. Men and women are segregated in the book, with women appearing to be the dominant group. There are four Orders of assassins that broadly do not recognise the fifth Order of Khur, made up of men, as a legitimate faction. However, men both within and outside the Order generally treat women with the same attitude as they do in the real world. There is even a character who sexually assaults a girl in the Order of Kali to the extent that she punches him to escape.

I found it a little bit unrealistic that, in a world where women are trained from a young age to kill, men would have the same disrespectful sense of forwardness as they do in the real world, where there is a long history of men dominating women. What I thought was worse, though, was that this character later returns to the story as a kind of knight in shining armour and rescues the girl he had earlier assaulted. Instead of returning her to her home, he takes her away with him. After this kidnapping, neither of them are heard from again. There is a sequel due out, so–presumably–this will be explored further there. I’ll be very disappointed if he becomes a legitimate hero.

I actually like the way that the love triangle was handled, despite usually being a tired trope of the genre. When Kyra seeks refuge and training with the Order of Khur, two of the boys she meets there fall for her almost immediately. In a more typical setting–for instance, a girl moving to a new school–this would be sure to bore me.

But here it kind of makes sense. The three of them are teenagers who have taken vows of celibacy without ever spending much time with anyone of the opposite sex. It makes more sense that they would become instantly and obsessively smitten with the first girl they’ve ever seen in these intensely hormonal circumstances than in situations found in most teen fiction.

There were times when I felt like this triangle took up too much space around Kyra’s mission to solve the mystery of and avenge her mentor’s death. It undermined the seriousness of her goal by putting more emphasis on the affections of these boys, who she can’t be with anyway, as they’ve all vowed celibacy, than on the main conflict of the story.

I liked the ambiguous ending. Kyra didn’t manage to just save the day, it took more than a couple of months training to defeat an accomplished assassin leader. It would have massively undermined how powerful the villain was, especially after building up her cruelty and ambition over the entire book. I really enjoyed the way that a potential other solution was seeded through the story and solidified into a genuinely satisfying conclusion. It offered a well-rounded ending to Kyra’s particular story, while still leaving plenty to explore in the sequel, with or without her.

For instance, the academic pursuits of the girls in the Order wove a lot of mystery into the story that I’d like to see more of. I’d also like to learn more about the wyr-wolves and their relationship to the other characters. In this book alone, I felt a little bit teased by these intriguing aspects of the story that didn’t come to a particularly satisfying resolution.

Markswoman has a really strong, solid foundation as a novel. Tropes, such as the love triangle and the prophecy, are used well, made original, and make sense within the context. This makes the story easy to follow, because there are a lot of aspects that are familiar, but without compromising the sense of originality.

Even though there were some problematic aspects, I enjoyed reading the book and I’m definitely intrigued to find out what the sequel will be like. I am hopeful that some of the issues I had with the first book might be improved later on. I want to see how the elements of the story that are still a mystery develop. I want to find out more about the wyr-wolves. I want to know how things change for the boys in the Order of Khur and for the girls Kyra left behind at the Order of Kali.

There is a lot left in this world to explore.