The Emperor’s Knife first came to my attention thanks to an interview I did with Night Shade author Teresa Frohock. Because of Teresa’s glowing comments about the book and Night Shade’s recent track record with debut authors, expectations were high for The Emperor’s Knife, and for the most part, Mazarkis Williams’ debut lived up to those expectations. What impressed me the most about The Emperor’s Knife were the characters, specifically the main POVs of Prince Sarmin, the assassin Eyul, the Lord High Vizier Tuvaini, and the Felt bride Mesema.
At a glance, these characters may seem stereotypical — Sarmin possesses a unique magical ability, Eyul is torn between his duty to the emperor and guilt for those he has killed, Tuvaini has aspirations for the Petal Throne, and Mesema is a stranger in a strange land — but traits like Sarmin’s imprisonment/insanity and Tuvaini’s ambiguity as well as unexpected character development over the course of the novel help offset the familiar elements while making it easier to feel sympathy for the protagonists. This is important since The Emperor’s Knife is a character-driven fantasy in the vein of Daniel Abraham’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET.
Speaking of THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, there are a number of other similarities between The Emperor’s Knife and Daniel Abraham’s debut series, including sparse yet elegant prose, methodical pacing, minimal world-building, and a lean page count, at least for a fantasy novel. Plotting, meanwhile, is a lot like the characters in The Emperor’s Knife, in that familiar elements such as court intrigue are offset by creative ideas like a magic system that revolves around patterns. The end result is a story that may seem familiar, especially to veteran readers of the fantasy genre, but is compelling nonetheless.
The one problem I had with the story is that events happen a little too quickly. In the space of 350 pages, thrones are usurped, the identity of the Pattern Master and his grand plan are revealed, a major confrontation between the protagonists and the Pattern Master occurs, and several characters meet their maker including two of the main POVs. Normally I find it refreshing when a fantasy novel can provide answers and a payoff as quickly as The Emperor’s Knife does, but in this case I felt Williams could have spent a little more time fleshing out certain aspects that would have made the novel even more rewarding. These include relationships that develop between characters (Mesema & Banreh, Mesema & Beyon, Eyul & Amalya, Sarmin & Grada, etc.), the Pattern magic, Mesema’s windreading ability, Eyul’s Knife, the Emperor’s law regarding Carriers, a proper sendoff for the main characters who fail to survive, the gods introduced in the book (Herzu, Keleb, Mirra, Mogyrk), and the world itself, which at times felt more like a traditional fantasy setting than a Persian/Arabian-influenced backdrop.
Even though the novel could have benefited from improvements in the areas mentioned above, The Emperor’s Knife as a whole is a very impressive debut by Mazarkis Williams, who immediately ranks among the year’s most exciting new fantasy authors. In the end, I greatly enjoyed The Emperor’s Knife and look forward to reading the rest of the TOWER AND KNIFE trilogy.
Tower and Knife — (2011-2013) Publisher: There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that marks each victim with a fragment of a greater design. Geometric patterns spread across the skin, until the victim dies in agony or becomes a Carrier, doing the bidding of an evil intelligence. The lost prince Sarmin, the emperor’s only surviving brother, lies locked in a hidden room. As the pattern draws closer to the palace he is at last remembered: now he awaits a bride, Mesema, a Windreader from the northern plains. She is accustomed to riding free across the grasslands and finds the Imperial Court stifling, but she soon realizes the politicking is not a game. It is in deadly earnest. Eyul, the imperial assassin, is burdened by the atrocities he has committed. As commanded, 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, the enemy moves towards victory. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who saw a path in a pattern once, among the waving grasses.