The Emperor’s Knife: Impressive debut

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

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.

PLOT SUMMARY: There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire — a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike. Geometric patterns spread across the skin, until you die in agony or become a Carrier, doing the bidding of an evil intelligence, the Pattern Master. Anyone showing the tell-tale marks is put to death — that is Emperor Beyon’s law…  but now the pattern is running over the Emperor’s own arms. His body servants have been executed, he ignores his wives, but he is doomed, for soon the pattern will reach his face. While Beyon’s agents scour the land for a cure, Sarmin, the Emperor’s only surviving brother, awaits his bride, Mesema, a windreader from the northern plains. Unused to the Imperial Court’s stifling protocols and deadly intrigues, Mesema has no one to turn to but an aging imperial assassin, the Emperor’s Knife.

As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence, the invincible Pattern Master appears from the deep desert. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young woman from the steppes who saw a path in a pattern once, among the waving grasses — a path that just might save them all…

FORMAT/INFO: The Emperor’s Knife is 352 pages long divided over a Prologue and forty-two numbered chapters. Narration is in the third person via four main characters: Prince Sarmin; the Emperor’s Knife Eyul; the Lord High Vizier Tuvaini; and Prince Sarmin’s Felt bride, Mesema. The Emperor’s Knife is the first volume of the TOWER AND KNIFE trilogy, but reads as a standalone novel with most of the major plot points wrapped up. The trilogy will continue in Knife-Sworn. December 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Emperors Knife via Night Shade Books. The UK version was released on October 27, 2011 via Jo Fletcher Books.

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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  1. I agree with you completely – fascinating idea, nice debut, I’m very interested in see where the story goes. but things progressed too quickly. The story started out all character driven (my favorite kind!), and then we got more and more into the action side of things leaving very little time for character development.

  2. This book caught my interest too. It was pointed out to be via by Mark Lawrence, the author of the most awesome The Prince of Thorns. So I was all over your review when I saw it.

  3. Little Red Reviewer, I’m hopeful Mazarkis can rein things in a little bit in the sequel. I guess we’ll have to wait and see :)

    Greg, I think you would enjoy The Emperor’s Knife, but it’s quite different from Prince of Thorns just so you know…

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