October 25, 2018
(+++) A GRAND (AND LONG) QUEST
Khorasan Archives, Book One: The Bloodprint. By Ausma Zehanat Khan. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Khorasan Archives, Book Two: The Black Khan. By Ausma Zehanat Khan. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
It is hard not to want Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Khorasan Archives to be good. The sprawling series – four thick volumes that will likely total some 1,800 pages are planned – features a plethora of strong women characters, and indeed is female-dominated in a way that fantasy epics very rarely are. And it has a central proposition that is highly intriguing, namely that the written words of a crucial text called the Bloodprint have power that is both religious and magical. Books about books are always potentially fascinating, and the Khorasan Archives sequence is in large part about the ways in which highly important books – the parallel with the Quran is clear – can be used for purposes both good and ill.
The problem with the series, unfortunately, is that it is so enamored of words and language that it bogs down repeatedly in verbal oddities, from its peculiar mixture of names to the amount of time characters spend on word-related matters. A single example: “Sinnia was unabashed. ‘This country has strange names. In my land, the westward river is called the Tarius. Others know it as Arius.’ Arian nodded, resting her back against the minaret’s curved wall. ‘The people of the Aryaward, the southernmost lands, know it as the Horaya. They say the ancient people named it for one of their gods. The people of the Plague Lands called it the Tejen.’” This sort of discursive dialogue is delivered along with some irritating stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as Khan’s fondness for single-sentence paragraphs. Again, a single example:
“Arian pushed down a surge of longing.
Why had she sought out Daniyar?
Why had the Silver Mage come to her rescue only to ride away?
Her questions remained unanswered.
The sound of Wafa’s chattering teeth distracted her.”
And so on, and on and on, in a manner that is wearing after two volumes (indeed, after a portion of a single one) and is likely to become much more so by the time this grand epic eventually concludes.
And then there are the place names and titles of the very large cast of characters (many of whom are listed in three-to-four-page appendices). There is some consistency, and a certain level of reality-based exoticism, to a land called Khorasan with a region called Hazar and cities called Hira and Marakand. But there is also a region called Far Range, mountains called Death Run, a horn called Avalaunche, and leadership titles including Authenticate, Commandhan, and the Authoritan and his Augur-Consort. This mixture of terms is, at the very least, odd; it is also distracting, making it difficult to focus on the story because of the jarring nature of many of its elements.
The overarching plot revolves around two women: Arian, First Oralist of the Companions of Hira, and her apprentice and warrior companion, Sinnia. The Companions of Hira preserve the magicoreligious sacred heritage of a scripture known as the Claim; and they stand in opposition to a vicious, patriarchal, anti-educational, anti-woman movement called the Talisman (yes, as in Taliban). The Talisman – led by a man known as the One-Eyed Preacher – is determined to destroy the Bloodprint, an artifact said to contain the entire Claim, which is generally known only through fragments (many of which are scattered throughout the books’ pages). In The Bloodprint, Arian and Sinnia are on the trail of the manuscript in the hope that the text will show the way to destroy the Talisman once and for all. Their quest is complicated by, among other things, the occasional appearance of the Silver Mage, a man named Daniyar, whose love Arian has rejected for 10 years in pursuit of a higher duty; and by a variety of philosophical discussions and analyses, such as one about whether a single sacred word can mean both “peace” and “submission.” By the cliffhanger ending of The Bloodprint, the quest for the mystical manuscript has failed and the Talisman is continuing its drive to destroy literacy – and, not incidentally, engaging in some rather gruesome torture of Arian, Sinnia and Daniyar. Captured and held separately, the three manage to escape in The Black Khan and reunite to continue their search for the codex, which turns out to be held by a ruler named Rukh, the Black Khan of the second book’s title. In this book, political chicanery and machinations come to the fore, since Rukh’s entire court is ruled by treachery and conspiracy. The brave companions must engage in some intrigues of their own, including with Rukh, whose motivation cannot be trusted even when he joins their cause – or seems to. It is hard to keep track of all the changes in allegiance here, and the task is not really made easier by the author’s inclusion of extended glossaries (five pages in the first book, six in the second) that readers will need to consult frequently to be able to follow what is going on and, more to the point, who is doing what to whom. Even with the glossary, that is not always clear, since characters’ motivations shift frequently and are sometimes self-contradictory. The intriguing place settings and sense of deep history – based in part on some real-world events of the ancient Middle East – are at nearly constant war with the overly complex discussion points and analyses, the innumerable characters with little personality differentiation, and the rather facile and simplistic notion that the foundational question of the whole sequence is one of heart vs. duty. Again and again, readers are likely to wish that Khan would simply get on with it, the “it” being action of some sort, because when there is action, she handles the scenes well. But this planned tetralogy already shows considerable signs of bloat in its first two volumes, and it is hard to argue that it would not be better as a trilogy, or even a two-book sequence.