Blood and Water: The Impossible Contract by K. A. Doore

Posted 10th November 2019 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

The Impossible Contract (Chronicles of Ghadid #2) by K.A. Doore
Representation: PoC, wlw or F/F romance, sapphic lead character
Published by Tor Books on 12th November 2019
Genres: Epic Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Pages: 352
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five-stars

Second in K. A. Doore's high fantasy adventure series the Chronicles of Ghadid, a determined assassin travels to the heart of the Empire in pursuit of a powerful mark, for fans of Robin Hobb, Sarah J. Maas, and S. A. Chakraborty

Thana has a huge reputation to live up to as daughter of the Serpent, who rules over Ghadid’s secret clan of assassins. Opportunity to prove herself arrives when Thana accepts her first contract on Heru, a dangerous foreign diplomat with the ability to bind a person’s soul under his control.
She may be in over her head, especially when Heru is targeted by a rival sorcerer who sends hordes of the undead to attack them both. When Heru flees, Thana has no choice than to pursue him across the sands to the Empire that intends to capture Ghadid inside its iron grip.

A stranger in a strange city, Thana’s only ally is Mo, a healer who may be too noble for her own good. Meanwhile, otherworldly and political dangers lurk around every corner, and even more sinister plans are uncovered which could lead to worldwide devastation. Can Thana rise to the challenge―even if it means facing off against an ancient evil?

The Impossible Contract is the second book in Doore’s Chronicles of Ghadid trilogy, a series following a family of assassins in a desert world where water is not only currency, but magic. Contract reads perfectly well as a standalone, but you’re missing out if you skip over book one, The Perfect Assassin, with its homoromantic-asexual, certified cinnamon roll of a lead, Amastan.

Amastan features as a brief side-character in this book, but Contract is squarely centred on Thana, and as much as I loved Amastan, I’m so glad Thana got to star in her own novel! Although at first glance she seems to be a reasonably typical character – daughter of the (in)famous Serpent, an assassin who prevented a war, with a chip on her shoulder about proving herself and a weakness for pretty girls – I actually ended up reading the book twice so I could devote an entire reading just to analysing her, highlighting and making notes on all the skilfully subtle ways Doore reveals that she’s actually far more complicated than she looks at first glance.

And to be honest, the entire book is like that: on one level, it reads a bit like an action film, in that it’s a ton of fun, the plot moves along at an excellent pace, and it’s pure entertainment – you’re not required to think too hard about anything, you can just sit back and enjoy. And that’s not meant as any kind of insult; I devoured Impossible both times. It’s addictive and blissfully readable, with just the right balance of description and action in the writing. On a superficial level, the plot is simple enough to not require much of the reader – which is such a relief when you’re tired and just want something fun to read! – while still having enough twisty bits to be genuinely interesting.

But if you do decide to pay that extra bit of attention…then so much depth is added to the story, the characters, and the worldbuilding, that to be honest I’m kind of in awe. Impossible Contract somehow manages to be two books in one: one catering to readers looking for something fresh and fun, and another for readers who want intricate worldbuilding, fantasy politics, and morally complex characters.

Suffice to say, I’m bloody impressed.

Let’s take a look at the set-up: if you’re unfamiliar with the series, Ghadid is a city on the edge of the desert Wastes, raised hundreds of feet in the air on platforms suspended above the sands. Thana’s family – or a select few of them, anyway, hidden amongst the rest of their more mundane cousins – are assassins who deal out justice when the legal system fails, or when going through the courts would do more harm than good for the victims. One of their responsibilities is making sure the bodies of those they kill are found quickly, as a person’s jaan – a wild, elemental spirit released after death – must be swiftly bound by a marab (a kind of priest) lest it cause blasphemous havoc. The economy is based upon water – Ghadid’s currency is literally made up of water-tokens – which healers can use to magically treat injuries and illness.

This is all sketched out for us in Perfect Assassin, but Impossible goes into much more depth on all of it. For example, the magical healers are only glimpsed in book one, but here, Mo, one of the main characters and Thana’s love interest, is a healer herself, so we get a much closer look at the magic and the ethics surrounding it. When Thana is forced to leave Ghadid in order to complete her contract, we also get to see more of the world Doore’s created, not just Ghadid itself but the caravans and tribes who traverse or live in the Wastes, all the way to the Empress’s court. We’re not drowned in Wheel of Time-esque levels of detail, but everything is so beautifully fleshed-out that you can all but feel the desert heat rising off the pages.

I felt like we also learn a lot more about Thana’s family in this book, even though most of the story takes place outside Ghadid and far away from Thana’s relatives. Writing about assassins is always a bit tricky – while fantasy readers are experts at allowing a story to set the rules, it’s a little hard to get away from ‘people who kill for money’. I don’t tend to read books about assassins, because in my experience writers either lean into the grimdark-awfulness of it, or handwave the ethics. Perfect Assassin kind of sidestepped the issue by presenting us with assassins-in-training who might never be allowed to use their skills, and a main character who was deeply conflicted over the actual killing part. But in Impossible Contract, the question of ‘how am I supposed to be okay with any of this?’ is much more immediate. And Doore gives us an answer – the book opens with Thana and Amastan working together to assassinate a rapist whose social status would earn him a slap on the wrist if the case become public, while ruining his victim’s reputation and life. For anyone who wasn’t already aware, the #MeToo movement of the last few years has everybody clear on how this situation can occur, and why legal channels might not be the best ones for the victim. It’s up to the individual reader whether or not they approve, but I suspect everyone should be able to understand the role a family like Thana’s could play in ensuring justice for all.

And we can leave it there and not think about it any further. But for anyone who takes a closer look, Doore makes it clear that it’s not exactly that simple. There’s a surprising amount of hypocrisy or double-standards thinking going on with Thana and her family; for example, at one point, Thana’s inner monologue mentions that G-d does not approve of murder, even when done for the greater good. That throwaway, blithe thought stopped me cold, because it shows that Thana’s family…what? Believes themselves to be outside G-d’s rules? Outside His authority? Better than Him? Or maybe even at odds with Him; just a chapter or two later, we learn that Thana wears charms to protect her from G-d. At first I thought that meant something like, protection from ‘acts of God’, which is how we refer to impossible-to-predict scenarios like being struck by lightning. But rereading the passage, Thana wears other charms to protect against bad luck, which suggests that protection from G-d is something separate to random awfulness like lightning strikes or sandstorms.

Which makes it…almost infuriatingly hypocritical, actually, when Thana then accepts a contract on a man whose supposed crimes (which are not actually detailed to her) are described as ‘crimes against G-d’. It’s difficult to understand how Thana can think that justification for a hit when her entire career is built on spitting on G-d’s laws, but she does. And I don’t think that’s poor writing – lots of people don’t analyse their own actions or beliefs closely enough to catch that kind of contradiction, so it’s perfectly believable that Thana doesn’t either. But it did make me like her a whole lot less, even if it made her more interesting.

So to summarise: Thana’s family of assassins knowingly operate outside the law, and acknowledge that they do so in direct contradiction of G-d’s law, to the point where they potentially need supernatural protection to dodge G-d’s ire. And although they claim to deal out justice, they seem to hold themselves to very different standards than they do their contracts. There’s also never been any mention, that I could catch, of the family doing their own investigation into the people they’re hired to kill. The person who brings them the contracts supposedly vets them, but given how vague he was in describing the crimes justifying the impossible contract of the title, and how little convincing Thana took, I’m not at all convinced it’s a good system. Also, their work isn’t any kind of deterrent to future evil – many of their contracts are arranged to look like natural deaths or accidents, which might bring some peace to the victims of the people who are killed, but won’t deter other people from committing the same crimes. I’m not even sure if it can be called justice at that point. You raped her, so we kill you, but everyone will think you died a natural death, so the next guy to come along won’t know there’s a punishment for rape, and won’t hesitate to commit the crime. Um. That reads a lot more like very useless revenge than any kind of justice???

Then there’s the fact that Thana casually decides to throw Ghadid into open war with the Empress, after approximately three seconds consideration, after discussing it with absolutely no one. Not even with the rest of her family. Because this is a political hit – the contract has been taken out on the Empress’s ambassador – and Thana’s aware of the repercussions, and just…goes ahead with it.

She’s an interesting main character and I’m still glad she got her own book. But it’s kind of difficult to like her.

And the thing is, I do think all of this is absolutely intentional. Doore sowed these ethical question marks in book one, and Impossible Contract is very much the harvest. It’s an entire arc or plotline you can completely miss if you’re not looking for it or don’t really care about it, but how is this okay? and who gave you the right? and even how dare you? all come to a pretty perfect (if painful) conclusion by the end of the book, so thoroughly that it’s impossible not to think it’s deliberate, that Doore has been considering these questions from day one and always planned for it to go this way. It’s subtle and clever and brilliant, and way more nuanced than I was expecting.

Other reviewers have talked about how brilliant the character dynamics and relationships are, and also gleefully (and rightly) praised the more central plot of Thana’s journey from Ghadid and the ensuing shenanigans, so I don’t feel the need to do the same. (Although don’t get me wrong: I’m a major fan of both those aspects of the book too!) But it’s the depths beneath the action-film fun that makes Impossible Contract an even better and much stronger book than Perfect Assassin, and guarantees Doore a spot on my auto-buy list of authors from now on.

Impossible Contract comes out in two days, and I strongly urge you to nab a copy asap!

five-stars

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