The Emperor's Knife, book one of the Tower and Knife trilogy is the debut novel of Mazarkis Williams and was published on October 27th 2011. There is no official date for the second book but we know it is titled Knifesworn.
There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike, marking each victim with a fragment of a greater pattern. Anyone showing the marks is put to death. That is Emperor Beyon's law . . .
But now the pattern is reaching closer to the palace than ever before. In a hidden room, a forgotten prince has grown from child to man, and as the empire sickens, Sarmin, the emperor’s only surviving brother, is remembered. He awaits the bride his mother has chosen: a chieftain’s daughter from the northern plains.
Mesema travels from her homeland, an offering for the empire’s favour. She is a Windreader, used to riding free across the grasslands, not posing and primping in rare silks. She finds the Imperial Court’s protocols stifling, but she doesn’t take long to realise the politicking and intrigues are not a game, but deadly earnest.
Eyul is burdened both by years and by the horrors he has carried out in service to the throne. At his emperor’s command he bears the emperor’s Knife to the desert in search of a cure for the pattern-markings.
As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence and rebellion, the enemy moves toward victory. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who once saw a path through a pattern, among the waving grasses.The Emperor's Knife is the story of the Ceranian throne, the bloody and sulfurous intrigue surrounding it, a mysterious pattern disease and mostly and more importantly the players themselves. Williams' tale is presented in the midst of a big empire derived from the culture of the Ottoman Empire and the Arabian Nights (I picked this up from an interview of the author). The young emperor's mother, his assassin, his counselor the High Vizier and several other protagonists are trying to improve their status or keep control of their assets. For some, their motivations may seem conventional but for others, the incentive pushing them is more complex and ambiguous. I know, you will probably tell me that you have read several novels falling into that category and you will be right. If this kind of novel is your cup of tea, you could stop reading the review right now and open the book. For the others, I think you should consider it seriously and I will attempt to show you why.
The intrigue itself is what made me fly through the pages. Not the machinations themselves but the impact on the members of the cast. The scope is nothing to compare to George R.R. Martin's saga but the story is very tightly woven, though it is plagued with a couple of dumbfounding scenes and the characters making their moves are compelling. You may have witnessed this situation more often than not but when it is well executed, it creates splendid novels. In the case of the Emperor's Knife, there were times when things got almost too blurry in term of comprehension of who stood where in the grand scheme of things but the big picture got clearer just at the right times, barely so in a couple of instances. There is many rises of action, high or turning points, making a supposition of climax appear that turns out to be a jumping point to a storyline that brings ever more to the table. A real page-turner, nicely executed but not without its flaws.
I will not start an analysis of all the characters since it would be quite lengthy. However, I will spend some time on the most important protagonists. Sarmin, the emperor's brother, is standing on the border between madness and sanity. His imprisonment made him create a world of his own, which is as creative as the whole Cerani Empire and his storyline regularly brings some insight into the past. When the author brings up his point of view, you easily connect with his spirit, which is weirdly colorful, tense and effervescent. Sadly, his magical prowess is intrinsic and I think the author should have elaborated more on its origin. It's frustrating to see him execute something incredible without insight...
Next is Eyul, the assassin. On the negative side, as with many Fantasy novels starring assassins lately, we are in the presence of a genuinely kind and caring killer (to a certain degree). However, I have to admit that the person himself is probably having the hardest part to play in the story and even though his thread is not a coming of age experience, he lives through great transformations that justify the cliché. In the end, his adventures and all the interventions Sarmin has with the other characters are the most interesting parts. Tuvaini, the High Vizier, is caring a lot for the empire and although he is more straightforward, still, his struggles are worthy sub-plots.
Then, there is one of the few female point of view (even though there is a considerable cast of women), Mesema. In her case again, we are gifted with an engaging character but still familiar. I think that Williams is actually quite apt at writing female protagonists with his particular setting in mind. This conclusion came to me as a surprise. I want to be fair here and I don't want you to judge my next statement wrongly, but when reading the book, on some occasions, I told myself with a grin: "this is really written by a guy". I see it as a positive aspect of the book, creating some refreshing remarks. On the other hand, maybe he ought to work a bit more on the romantic scenes.
I have read some praise for the magic system but basically, I don't agree completely, I didn't find much originality. The foundation of the author's magic structure is found in bonds with elementals, which are split into the classic categories (fire, water, air....). However, and hopefully, one aspect of it completely eclipses the mages framework. The pattern. Alongside the political scheming, the whole pattern aspect gives a unique voice to the novel and a strong one it is. The patterns are found on the body of the carriers, those who are affected by it, and in the world itself as it affects nature for those who can see it. The Pattern-Master is behind it all but the discovery of who is identity is not the best twist ever, you can see it coming sooner than ever. Don't worry, there are other turns of events or resolutions that are deceptive and intriguing.
In term of writing, Williams' book can be considered a fast read where you won't find the unnecessary description or character deliberation. The pace is fluid and he uses skillfully the trick of switching the points of view frequently to make us eager for the return of a particular character or to present a scene through the right eyes at the right time.
When I finished the book, I remembered that it was actually the first part of a trilogy. I am not certain why, but at that moment, I thought that maybe it should have been a stand alone. The resolution of almost all the important threads made me question what the author would be up to but I am not in Mazarkis Williams' head and I believe that he will be able to present another entertaining tale. His debut is testament enough.
Technically, even though the cover is a pretty work of art, with great colors, lettering and representations, it is still the infamous hooded assassin. The book stands at 388 pages and a map is available (here too).
The Emperor's Knife review score :
Characterization............. 8 /10
World building............... 8 / 10
Magic system................. 8 / 10
Story.............................. 8.5 / 10
Writing........................... 7.5 / 10
Overall (not an average) 8 / 10
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