Revel in Eastern Magic and Knife-Wielding Assassins in Rati Mehrotra’s ‘Markswoman’

Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra plunges you into the story world almost immediately. You open the book onto a map boasting drawings of mythical creatures in various regions. While this might be a tad misleading in terms of how many unicorns you can expect to find in the story, it does do a decent enough job of preparing you for the fantastical place you are about to enter.

Mehrotra builds the world efficiently and effectively in the space of just a few pages. She soon establishes the values of the society in which Kyra, the protagonist, lives and troubles her world faces. Mehrotra offers a refreshing take to fantasy, both in terms of source material and character development.

The world and magic is based on non-western mythology, which sets this book distinctly apart from traditional fantasy such as that written by the likes of Tolkien.

Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, an exclusively female community of assassins who effectively act as police in their society, armed with magical telepathic blades. When her mentor dies, Kyra finds herself caught at the heart of a dark conspiracy that she believes is hiding murder.

Despite the fact that the story revolves around a group of trained professional killers, death is treated with respect throughout the book. The violence in it is not particularly over the top. Death itself is explored from multiple angles. The story approaches the loss of loved ones, in suspicious and natural circumstances, as well as the emotional and social impact of taking a life with your own hand.

A lot of small details that build on the general foundation of the story world are well woven into the story. For instance, although the central characters rely on their physical abilities to both earn their living and survive, it is clear that academic pursuits are also valued. The girls in the Order of Kali are shown concentrating on mathematics as much as their magical martial arts. This isn’t hugely expanded upon later on in the story, but there is a sequel already in the works, so maybe it will be explored further as the series continues.

The way that magic works is a more original concept that you typically see in a lot of fantasy, without alienating the reader. It has a sense of familiarity about it, but tells a new story from the very start.

Mehrotra’s writing is solid – she conveys the story in a way that is easy to follow along, even when plot points get complex or action gets chaotic. Mehrotra puts in just enough detail that you know exactly what is going on at any given moment, without labouring any of the description. Although the development of the narrative is far from obvious, nothing comes completely out of nowhere. Mehrotra seeds the story really well from the beginning.

The history of Kyra and her community and her world is not as clear, despite the evidently significant impact that the past has on the present day. Slowly, this is revealed in such a way that it feels tantalising, a mystery that will surely be solved, rather than frustrating gaps in the story. However, some of the things that are revealed as the past is explored can be problematic.

For example, a major plot point – one that the entire story hinges on – is that a women lied about being raped in order to save her honour after eloping with a man her family did not approve of. This sets in motion the narrative of the darkest, most heinous villain in the story world, who wipes out an entire village in retaliation after losing his lover.

While the lie in itself isn’t inconceivable as something that would happen far more commonly in a culture such as this, where honour is highly valued in all aspects of life, it doesn’t help the fact that rape accusations aren’t taken seriously enough as it is.

In the real world, a pitiful amount of rapes are reported, with an even smaller amount resulting in any form of punishment. Some of the most powerful men in the world, in every industry, have been accused of sexual assault and only a handful have lost their power.

Rape, as a plot device, cannot be taken lightly because of the impact the representation of it has on society as a whole. Markswoman does not appear to have taken this into consideration. In fact, the gender divide feels a little bit confused throughout most of the book.

There are four Orders of assassins in the book, all of which are made up of women and do not recognise the fifth Order of Khur as a legitimate faction. These orders are segregated, seemingly for life, and all five take vows of celibacy. However, outside of the Orders, the relationship between men and women appears to be largely the same as it is in the real world. In the early chapters of the book, three girls from the Order of Kali are approached by a man who attempts to sexually assault one of them and earns himself a slap in the face as she escapes.

It feels a bit unrealistic that any man would be so brazen with women who are trained to kill from a young age and broadly have the kind of power that, for instance, men in the armed forces have in the real world. Even worse, this character returns later in the book, after the girl he assaults has been abused and abandoned by the villain of the story. The man comes back as her rescuer, taking her away from the place where she has been left and not returning her to her home.

The reader isn’t told where they go. Presumably, this will be explored in the sequel, but by the end of the first book this girl has effectively been kidnapped by the man who had previously assaulted her. Depending on how Mehrotra expands on this subplot, this could turn out extremely problematic.

One of the gender driven subplots that did work was, surprisingly, the love triangle. Despite being a typically boring trope of young adult fiction, Mehrotra handles it in a way that makes sense.

Outside of her remarkable skill as an assassin for her age, Kyra is not treated by a particularly outstanding person in terms of beauty or sweetness or any of the usual clichés that make a Mary Sue attractive to boys. Instead, she is simply the only teenage girl that two teenage boys – who have taken a vow of celibacy – have ever really interacted with.

At a time of great tension and greater hormones, the fact that they would become madly infatuated with her makes a lot more sense than if she was self-conscious schoolgirl who just moved town. At times, the love triangle seems to overwhelm the story, to the extent that you wonder why Kyra is spending so much time fussing over boys when she has a murder to avenge.

The story ends ambiguously.

Kyra spends a lot of time training, but not enough that she could conceivably win the final showdown on skill and strength alone. Mehrotra puts a lot of effort into establishing the ambition, ruthlessness and outright cruelty of the villain. If a teenager could have defeated her, it would have hugely undermined that long set up.

Instead, she seeds an alternative throughout the story that pays off in such a way that Kyra’s conclusion feels satisfactory without feeling too convenient. The books ends with Kyra’s story neatly wrapped up, but with enough left to explore in the sequel to keep the reader intrigued.

For instance, it would be interesting to see some payoff to the girls’ academic pursuits, as well as more of the relationship between the mysterious wyr-wolves and human society. Some of these aspects are teased without any firm resolution. It would definitely be intriguing to see how these seeds bloom in the following books.

Generally, tropes are used well in this book, with Mehrotra being skilled enough as a writer to own them and infuse them with her own sense of originality. There are lots of elements of the world and Kyra’s history and her schoolmates’ stories that are sure to make for an interesting series.

The sequel will need to overcome some of the problematic representation in Markswoman. Otherwise, there is a lot of great material to work with to expand on the broadly solid foundation Mehrotra has built in her debut novel.

Buy it here.

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