Canadian writer Ausma Zehanat Khan – author of The Unquiet Dead (2015) from the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series – explores magic, oppression and the power of words in her first fantasy novel, The Bloodprint.
The story takes place on Khorasan, a world of desert sands, daggers and scimitars, whips and slave chains, and ruthless authoritarian preachers. Here we meet Arian, Companion and First Oralist of Hira; and Sinnia, Arian’s friend, protector and fellow Companion.
Khan wastes no time in book one of her new series. She drops us right on top of a rescue mission in the opening chapter, as Arian and Sinnia swoop down on four men of the Talisman that are transporting a group women who have been chained and bound for slavery.
With flowery prose, elegant language and plenty of description, Khan paints a magnificent portrait of our heroines with their glinting gold circlets, green cloaks swirling in the wind, the thunderous hooves of the khamsa, and the actions taken to free the women from their wicked captors.
The Talisman is a militant religious order founded by “the one-eyed preacher”. He wants Khorasan under his control and has been recruiting men into his army as he expands his power city by city. The Talisman not only abhor the written word, they also want women locked away with their families, never to be seen or heard from again by outsiders.
Standing against the warmongers are The Companions Of Hira, a group of women drawn from across Khorasan. They have access to a group memory known as The Claim, written by a religious man aeons ago and one that affords them magical powers. The women call upon it by reciting verses that result in various magical acts.
Because the original inscribed version of The Claim has been lost, The Companions recite the verses from memory. It’s one of the reasons the preacher man wants all the books on Khorasan burnt, and to forbid the teaching of writing and reading.
The ruler of Ashfall, The Black Khan, a man of dubious affiliations and motives appears at The Companions stronghold with news apparently confirming the existence of the oldest known written version of The Claim: The Bloodprint. It is up to Arian and Sinnia to recover the ancient artifact and to discover the missing verses of The Claim.
The Bloodprint is a fascinating treatise on religious belief, specifically how faith can hold out hope, comfort and valuable teachings for many (The Companions), but in the wrong hands that same religion can be perverted into hate, fear and dominance (The Talisman).
That said, Khan’s character development is … let’s call it thin. The Arian at the beginning of the novel is not much different than the woman at the end. Her world-building is much better. From the deserts of West Khorasan to the snowy mountains of The Wandering Cloud Door, she clearly expresses her vision of the various regions.
She also throws in plenty of new words from her fantasy world language, so having a glossary come with the book is very much welcomed, along with a cast index for reference. I’m optimistic that there’ll be more character development in the sequel.
As the first book from the Khorasan Archives, this novel feels a lot like a set-up. Arian and Sinnia are tasked to find the original version of The Claim known as “The Bloodprint”. As The Companions follow clues to logical conclusions and meet folks in and from other lands, The Talisman chases after them, leaving bloodshed in its wake.
The first few chapters are a bit of a slog, with all the new words and long-winded depictions. But Khan is never short on action.
The Bloodprint, though a little flawed in places, is an exciting debut into high fantasy for Khan. In the author quotes ascribed to the book, sci-fi and fantasy author/poet Saladin Ahmed says it is “somewhere between N.K. Jemisin and George R.R. Martin”. (Jemisin is a speculative fiction writer who in 2016 became the first black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel with her book, The Fifth Season.)
But I would amend that to read “N.K. Jemisin and David and Leigh Eddings”. The Bloodprint is more like the hunt and seek, foreordained prophecy and item recovering of The Belgariad series than the political machinations of spies, dragons and wolves that you get in Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. That’s not such a bad thing, really. I just think it’s better to set correct expectations for Khan and her novel.
Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Publisher: Harper Voyager, young adult fantasy