A review of Rati Mehrotra’s Hinduism-inspired fantasy duology

The Hindu goddess Kali is a figure of extremes: a protector of the innocent, a terrifying goddess of war, a destroyer of evil and a paragon of righteousness. Sent to earth to cleanse it of wrongdoing, she supposedly gets so carried away by bloodlust that she begins killing the innocent. Desperate to stop her but unable to take her on in combat, her husband comes down to earth and places himself under her foot. She steps on him and stops, transfixed by the horror of what she’s done.

Kali is also a controversial and powerful feminist figure for our modern age. Consider this excerpt, from an article titled “Hinduism’s Kali is the feminist icon the world desperately needs”:

“Kali is the quintessential embodiment of shakti, female power. She emerges as an independent goddess around 1000 BCE and evolves as a controversial character: she is a scary, bloodthirsty embodiment of destruction, and the ultimate protector against evil. She is spiritual and bodily, erotic and sexual and as such, courageous: in the Tantrik cults that revolve around her, eroticism is primarily a way of confronting one’s deepest fears.”

This is very promising territory for a fantasy novel, and Markswoman/Mahimata come close to being the novel I craved. Its limitations are not really the author’s fault; I wish this were an adult novel rather than YA.

Kyra Veer, the duology’s main character, has one abiding goal: to avenge the death of her clan at the hands of a brutal tyrant. In this particular quest, she has a lot of company: vengeful, talented orphans have their own zip code in the YA fantasy universe.

Kyra will do anything to accomplish her quest. And she can do a lot — she’s a member of the Order of Kali, a holy sisterhood of warrior women who worship the goddess’ martial aspect. Kyra advances through the Order’s ranks, gaining power and skill until she can take on the tyrant himself, who — not content with wiping out Kyra’s clan — now threatens her entire world. In order to defeat him, she has to hone her own skills and build up an army of unlikely allies.

At first, it almost seems like Mehrotra’s own worldbuilding might be the novel’s undoing, because there is a lot going on. Kyra’s world, Asiana, has five fighting sisterhoods (and one brotherhood!), known as the Orders, who protect the world with blades forged from a telepathic metal known as kalishium. There are werewolves hiding in the lush woods. There are bygone monks living in the mountains, possibly guarding the secrets of lost civilizations. And there are strange, technologically advanced but abandoned Transport Hubs dotting the landscape, remnants of a once supposedly great civilization that inhabited Kyra’s world but was wiped out by war. Now the doors in the Hubs lead off in unpredictable directions. The Hubs reminded me of the obelisks in NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. In Jemisin’s novels, the obelisks are the mysterious remnants of a long-ago civilization, and the present-day Stillness is a post-apocalypse universe riven by catastrophic weather patterns. Like the heroines of Jemisin’s story, Kyra must channel her long-dead ancestors, and save her universe by linking the knowledge of old world and new. In both The Fifth Season and here, we see the anxieties of the present reflected in predictions for the future: unchecked climate havoc, superweapons.

Despite the rich ambiguities of Kali’s mythology and this past history, Markswoman and Mahimata are philosophically straightforward. We know that Kyra’s enemy is evil because he threatens everyone, but also because he uses guns, a terrible weapon left over from the ancestors’ wars. It’s easy to hate guns, especially when they’re wielded by a murderous jerk. But I wish Mehrotra’s story spent more time explaining to us why the kalishium blades wielded by Kyra’s Order are any different. Kyra herself is a warrior who takes on the aspect of Kali when avenging her family. Isn’t war the problem, rather than the devices used to commit it? Why is Kyra good, and the tyrant evil? And why cite Kali as inspiration for this story, a goddess known specifically for not fitting into neat categories?

Kyra also reminded me of Katsa, the stubborn fighting heroine of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series. Like Katsa, Kyra is a fighter, and like Katsa, she injures the people around her, but everyone forgives and loves her anyway. Both Kyra and Katsa fall in love with men who start out as sparring partners, although in Kyra’s case it’s her instructor, a man named Rustan. I wished that the love story in Markswoman got as much attention and explanation as the love story in Graceling. Kyra and Rustan meet when he’s assigned to teach her the fighting styles of Khur. By the end of a month, they’re in love, but why exactly — and what specifically attracts them to each other — remains unclear. This is how I felt about a lot of Kyra’s motivations and desires. I didn’t always understand how she differed from the dozens of angry, avenging, secretly-talented teenage orphan girls of fantasy stories galore.

There are some great characters and subplots in this story. I loved Kyra’s love interest, Rustan. Disillusioned with the warrior ways of his Order, Rustan seeks solitary refuge in the mountains, hiding out with a pair of phantom monks. He learns to read an ancient language, and, in a moment rife with real pathos, uncovers his own final resting place. He accepts sadness and loss as part of the journey of life. The same goes for Menadin, Kyra’s flashy werewolf ally. For much of Asiana’s history, humans and werewolves have been enemies, but Kyra recruits the werewolves to her cause. There’s a beautiful and heartbreaking moment when the werewolves are passing through a human temple at Kyra’s side. They look to the mirrors on the walls, and see themselves reflected as the proud humans they once were. I felt so much sorrow and empathy for the werewolves, whose devaluation seemed to mimic that of so many marginalized people. Unfortunately, the werewolves never got to be more than very supporting characters in Kyra’s story.

I wanted to see Mehrotra challenge her story even more, and in ways that linked the story’s action to the South Asian mythology that supposedly inspired it — at times, it can feel like the only connection is the use of Kali’s name. What about exploring eroticism as a site of resistance to fear, or adding real and lasting repercussions for the ethical contradictions in Kyra’s behavior? Instead, the story seemed busy pulling all its worldbuilding into a coherent whole, and giving Kyra some version of a happy ending. I liked this story, but I could have liked it a whole lot more if it were darker and more adult, and look forward to more of Mehrotra’s work in the future.