October 22, 2020


Khorasan Archives, Book Four: The Bladebone. By Ausma Zehanat Khan. Harper Voyager. $17.99.

     The seminal work of virtually all modern heroic fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, goes on for some 1,200 pages and includes Tolkien’s creation of about a dozen different languages for the various races portrayed. Grand in scale and broad in scope, The Lord of the Rings proceeds at a measured, carefully controlled pace that many readers today find on the too-leisurely side, especially if they know the Peter Jackson films based on Tolkien but have not read any of his actual prose. Consider, then, that Ausma Zehanat Khan needs 1,850 pages, 50% more than Tolkien required, to tell her Khorasan Archives stories, and you will have a sense of how the tetralogy is paced and how much time is spent exploring the world where it takes place.

     There is certainly no Tolkienian grandeur here, although Khan makes some passes at it through frequent disquisitions on religion, love, sacrifice, philosophy and more. Foundationally, though, this is a “quest quartet,” in which feminist warriors, who represent positivity and virtue (even when they are flawed, as they usually are), face off against the viciously murderous, paternalistic Talisman (the similarity with “Taliban” is no coincidence) and its leader, the One-Eyed Preacher. Religion and the interpretation of religious texts are foundational to the Khorasan Archives books, while the uses of magic, as well as mundane matters of assassination and slaughter, are equally germane and pervasive. Khan clearly wants her epic to be taken very seriously indeed – one thing it entirely lacks is humor – and invites comparisons with Tolkien through discussions of, for example, the different ways in which various geographical areas and landmarks are named by people from varying races and backgrounds. But all this portentousness, which tends to shade over into pretentiousness, seems tacked-on: this is essentially a tale of warfare with magical overtones, and it is quite clear which side is good and which evil – and therefore which will triumph in the end, undoubtedly after many reverses and much heartache and all the other accouterments of heroic fantasy today.

     As this long-spun-out epic winds to its foregone conclusion, it is important for readers to remember its foundation. The underlying premise is that a group called the Companions of Hira preserves the magicoreligious sacred heritage of a scripture known as the Claim, which is generally known only through fragments but supposedly exists in complete form in an artifact called the Bloodprint. Early in the Khorasan Archives series, the One-Eyed Preacher was determined to destroy the Bloodprint for a variety of spurious reasons that all came down, eventually, to a hunger for power. By the time of The Bladebone, the One-Eyed Preacher has found it more expedient to use the sorcerous powers of the Bloodprint in his bid for conquest and ultimate rule. Since one good weapon deserves another, the Council of Hira, for its part, is seeking a counterweapon in the form of the magical Bladebone – whose whereabouts, however, nobody knows. This is an ongoing element of Khan’s books: the Bloodprint itself was impossible to locate until it wasn’t, and now the Bladebone is in much the same circumstances.

     What all this means is that central character Arian, known as the First Oralist of Hira, must undergo the mystical ritual called Ascension and swear to serve justice, equity and peace – which readers of this series know she has been serving all along – before she can seek out the Bladebone. Her quest is aided not only by the loyal members of the Companions of Hira but also by Daniyar, Arian’s lover, known as the Silver Mage – whose path, however, diverges from Arian’s in the traditional mode of tales in which important characters must find their own way, face their own demons, then reunite at the end (as in Tolkien’s arranging to have Frodo and Sam rescued by the eagles after the fall of Mordor). So Arian focuses mainly on her search and Daniyar mainly on direct, often brutal battle against the Talisman hordes, which are besieging the capital city of Ashfall. There are many political machinations and debates both within Ashfall and in Hira, which is the Citadel of the Companions. Khan surely thinks these serve to deepen the story, but in fact they frequently manage only to bog it down.

     In The Bladebone as in the three previous Khorasan Archives novels, it is the descriptive passages, many drawn from old tales of the Middle East, that make much of the discursive narrative worthwhile. But readers of The Bladebone may have a distinct sense of déjà vu as the book progresses, since its quest so closely parallels that of the previous book, The Blue Eye, in which Daniyar led the fight against the Talisman while Arian was on a separate mission to find something (the Sana Codex) that could supposedly turn the tide of the conflict. The Sana Codex and Bloodprint certainly figure in The Bladebone, just as the title object does, and the eventual climactic confrontation between Arian and the One-Eyed-Preacher pits the various mystical objects’ powers against each other effectively. But Khan takes a long time getting to that climax; and as has been the case throughout the tetralogy, the “Cast of Characters” at the end (five pages) and the accompanying Glossary (12 pages) are absolute necessities to keep the narrative straight and understand, among other things, the multiple titles given to the same characters and multiple names for the same places. To be sure, other extended series – The Lord of the Rings most definitely included – have considerable material appended, but much of it tends to be explanatory and not absolutely necessary to follow the story, as is the case with the Khorasan Archives. Certainly this fourth book stays true to the first three in its characterizations and narrative pace, and does a good job of tying up loose ends (a lot of them). It is thoroughly satisfactory for readers who joined the sequence with The Bloodprint and stayed with it through The Black Khan and The Blue Eye. But although the word “impressive” comes readily enough to mind when describing the overall Khorasan Archives series, that is mostly for the sheer heft of the whole thing and for the author’s ability to weave all its threads into a satisfying garment. It is not, however, for anything especially memorable in the overall concept and structure of the four books, and certainly not for anything in their often molasses-like pacing.

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