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FICTION: CENTRAL ASIAN FANTASY

December 24, 2017

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The beautiful, sweeping lands of Khorasan and its people have steadily been falling under the oppressive and tyrannical control of the Talisman, a strong militia that, under the leadership of the One-Eyed Preacher, spreads its ignorant, intolerant and misogynistic ideology through the use of force as well as through a narrow and corrupted interpretation of the Claim, a religious text sacred to the people of Khorasan. If the basic premise of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint (The Khorasan Archives) sounds familiar, it is meant to; Khan’s sprawling epic fantasy novel, the first in a planned four-part series, is inspired by the Taliban occupation in northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, and more broadly by the history and geography of the lands and peoples, primarily the Pashtuns, along the Silk Route.

The Bloodprint uses this historical and political reality as a jumping-off point for its own narrative that includes a complex system of magic (the Claim is not only a religious text, but a source of powerful magic), a women-led counter-revolutionary group called the Council of Hira and a harrowing, dangerous quest undertaken by two women to defeat the powerful Talisman. An ambitious, but often frustratingly muddled undertaking, Khan’s fantasy novel explores themes of tolerance versus tyranny, orality versus the power of the written word and the ways in which the same sacred tradition can be used for both oppression and empowerment.

British-born Canadian Khan is a crime fiction writer who frequently incorporates real historical and contemporary political conflicts and their devastating consequences on human rights into her books; she has a PhD in International Human Rights Law and is adept at understanding the sociopolitical circumstances that bring about the rise of tyrannical militant groups. Her academic and literary interests, and her own personal interest in Pashtun history given her ethnic background, converge in The Bloodprint which is a departure for her in terms of genre.

The first of a four-part series builds an intricately grand and recognisable fantasy world, but buckles under the weight of its ambitions

Talking in an interview about the reasons behind embarking on this new series, Khan said, “I wrote this book because of who I am and where my family originates from. Ethnically, I’m a Pathan or Pashtun, a member of the tribes that live along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. And the Taliban that have risen, fallen, and risen again on either side of that border are predominantly Pashtuns. The Taliban’s oppression is carried out in the name of Islam, as a form of Islam. But those who stand against them — including other Pashtuns — find empowerment and deliverance within that same tradition. I wanted to explore different iterations of faith and how both deliverance and downfall can arise from within the same tradition.”

In The Bloodprint, the Talisman have systematically erased all written records of the sacred Claim and banned reading and writing in a successful effort to perpetuate their own ideological interpretation as its only true meaning. At the same time, the Council of Hira — a group of women scholars charged with guardianship of the sacred heritage of the Claim — fights to take back the original words and meaning of the scripture. Among the most honoured of the Companions of Hira are the Oralists who have memorised the Claim and can recite fragments of it in order to wield its magic. The Bloodprint thus explores how ideologically opposite groups can draw inspiration from the same source, and how important the written word becomes in such a fraught situation.

The plot of the novel really kicks off when Arian, one of the aforementioned Oralists, is tasked with finding and bringing back the Bloodprint, the oldest known written compilation of the Claim, because a written record of the scripture would go a long way in convincing the people of Khorasan that the interpretation being peddled by the Talisman is corrupt and used only to oppress different groups of people. Not coincidentally, the foremost among them are women whom the Talisman enslave, and a group called the Hazara.

“I would like to pay my respects at the graveyard, to recite a passage for the dead.” The Hazara gathered behind the Mir went still. This woman was a Companion of Hira, which meant she was an Oralist. But she was also connected to the Talisman by blood. “You would recite the Claim to honour Hazara?” “Without question. Why not?” As she looked from face to face, she saw that the Hazara had the shine of tears in their eyes. The hands the Mir had clasped together were shaking. “The Talisman call us a people of unbelief. The One commands our death, they say.” A dart of pain shot through Arian. What could the Preachers seek by this teaching? What benefit could there be in such hatred, or in bringing so many to grief? “We were made different nations to know one another,” she recounted. “Your ways and beliefs are righteous. People of dignity must not let themselves fall sway to the Talisman.” — Excerpt from the book

At its core, the novel is a treasure hunt: Arian — accompanied by her friend and apprentice Sinnia; Wafa, the young Hazara boy whom they rescue from the Talisman and Daniyar, a man with whom Arian has a complicated romantic past — traverses Khorasan in search of the Bloodprint, battling the armies of the Talisman and forming alliances with different groups of people in the process. The world Khan draws here is rich and complex, with intricate histories and relationships between the various groups of people and many political intrigues within the broader ideological battle between the Talisman and the Council.

The most interesting parts of the novel are when concerns about tradition, faith and interpretation play out; often, Arian recites fragments of the Claim that recollect, in their content, rhythm and style, passages from the Holy Quran — most fragments seem to be loose translations of Quranic verses — and Khan’s exploration and deepening of such references to their real-life counterparts is fascinating.

The problem is that while the scope of The Bloodprint is grand in its world-building and narrative plot as well as in its thematic concerns, and while the ideas behind it are compelling, the novel often buckles under the weight of all that it wishes to accomplish; you frequently get the feeling that Khan’s literary style is not fully up to the task. The characters are too broadly drawn — the villains have too little interiority of their own for us to get a deeper understanding of their motivations, for example, and even the heroes seem to be driven by the plot rather than actively driving the plot themselves. The intricacies of the world-building are too hazily described to provide a concrete context in which to understand the characters’ actions, and the pacing is at times jarringly uneven.

The most frustrating element, however, is the strange, emotionally distancing narrative style that prevents the reader from investing in the characters or the things that happen to them. This lessens the effectiveness of scenes that would otherwise have had more of an emotional impact, for example, the opening scene where Arian and Sinnia heroically free a group of enslaved women from the clutches of a Talisman regiment.

In theory, The Bloodprint is a refreshingly diverse take on the traditional epic fantasy genre, a genre that too often focuses on Anglo-European history and culture as its backdrop, although this focus is shifting in recent years. An epic fantasy series that draws on Central Asian history, culture and lore, and which explores timely discussions on faith, tolerance and bigotry is surely to be lauded. In practice, however, the novel has as many shortcomings as it has potential and promise — some of which, one would hope, would be addressed and rectified in the follow-up books in this series.

The reviewer teaches comparative literature at Habib University

The Bloodprint (The Khorasan Archives)
By Ausma Zehanat Khan
Harper Voyager, US
ISBN: 978-0062459190
448pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 24th, 2017