the Little Red Reviewer

The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams

Posted on: November 8, 2011

The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams

Available in the UK: Oct 2011 Jo Fletcher Books, US Dec 2011, Night Shade Books

Where I got it: Received advanced reading copy

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A royal family on the brink of disaster, a bride with an unsettled assassin on her trail, an ill emperor and his mad brother, their royal mother who will do anything to keep whatever power she has, a conniving vizier who will do anything to steal the throne and a mysterious magician known only as The Pattern Master, saying there isn’t much going on in this story is the understatement of the year. With echoes of a crusades era Ottoman Empire and brimming with the intrigue and courtly betrayals that reminded me at times of a Zhang Yimou film, Mazarkis William’s debut novel The Emperor’s Knife is a refreshing change from the European centered epic fantasy that’s recently seemed to take over bookstore shelves.

Following three major story lines (and a few small ones), we are quickly introduced to Prince Sarmin, younger brother to ruling Emperor Beyon; Eyul, the Emperor’s assassin; and Mesema, a young woman from a Felting tribe destined to be a royal bride.  Instead of a chapter at a time from each storyline, the point of view changes every few pages, or in some cases, every few paragraphs. It takes a bit to get used to, but this style of writing quickly turns into a method of keeping the reader’s rapt attention.

Prince Sarmin has been imprisoned nearly his entire life (for a fascinating risky reason, which I won’t spoil for you), and is thought mad by those few who even know of his existence. To earn his favor, many lay claim to being responsible for saving his life. Before Prince Sarmin can understand why his life has been spared, he must learn how to escape his prison.

Eyul is the only man in the empire who can legally kill a royal.  Burdened with the Emperor’s Knife, a twisted blade that has been handed down through the generations, Eyul is loyal to Emperor Beyon, killing anyone who learns too much.  The deadly patterns have begun to show on the Emperor’s own flesh, and if you learn of them, the last thing you’ll see in your life is Eyul’s knife.  Eyul trusts that he being commanded to kill only those who must die to save the Empire, but these days his trust is wearing thin.

Mesema, an “unproven” plainswoman of the Felting Tribe, thought she was sewing her sister’s wedding dress. In the plains, a woman isn’t worthy to marry until she can prove her reproductive abilities.  Mesema hasn’t even had a chance to prove herself yet, so when the General from the Empire laughs at her sister’s brood and demands a virgin for the Prince, it’s suddenly her own wedding dress she’s sewing. Mesema quickly became one of my favorite characters, as she’s most certainly not your standard “princess” type character.

As Mesema’s, Eyul’s, and Sarmin’s storylines begin to overlap and interweave, Williams gives us teases and tidbits about the power struggle in the center of the Empire.  Beyon may rule, but he has little power outside the throne room. Any true heir is a danger to those who wish to rule, and Beyon has yet to produce an heir.  While the royals are plotting for the throne, something much more dangerous, the Pattern plague, is sweeping the empire.  Those afflicted by the Pattern lose their sanity and become tools of the mysterious Pattern Master, and then they die.

The magic system is quite intruiging, if lightly explained.  We have mages that allow elementals to inhabit their bodies (which is super cool) but when the elemental becomes to powerful for the mage to control, bad things happen.  We’ve got this patterning disease, where shapes slowly cover one’s body, marking them as a “carrier” of the mysterious Pattern Master.  The way Williams very slowly metes out information on the magic system reminds me a little of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy (and I’m not the first reviewer to make this comparison) – those who are affected by it know very little about it, and fear it for the most part.

Although it boasts an engaging premise, an interesting  magic system and a refreshing setting, The Emperor’s Knife is not without it’s problems.  Decently written but unrefined, there are portions that are perfectly lovely, and others that are simply clunky and awkward. This is not a long book, and  characterization and foreshadowing are often sacrificed for physical details, leading to some confusion and a few scenes feeling like they came out of left field.  That said,  there are plenty of tantalizing ideas here – the patterning disease and Prince Sarmin’s accidental discoveries within it, elemental mages,  an ancient temple found in the desert, not to mention all the overly polite courtly cruelty,  it all keeps me interested to see what happens next.

Because this book doesn’t hit bookstore shelves for a handful of weeks yet, I ask that if you have read The Emperor’s Knife, please don’t talk about spoilers in the comments.

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6 Responses to "The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams"

Interesting review as always!

From observation I’m starting to think that the largest factor in a book’s success is the marketing push behind it. Quality is highly important too – but if a book is at least ‘good’ then quality stops being in the driving seat. So I’m interested to see how this book, and others like The Whitefire Crossing, Miserere etc with good reviews but a small push behind them, fare.

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I wonder how heavily pushed books that are merely “good” *cough* NightCircus *cough* do in the long run, if all they have is push and no staying power?

the sad part is, for many casual readers who just go to the library or the bookstore looking for a title they heard something about on TV or online, good is good enough, and ease of reading and access is often more important that quality. :(

case in point: Twilight.

crap.

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Great review – and I’m really looking forward to this one. I love non-European inspiration (though twists onthe typical are good, too), and this certainly fits the bill.

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Jacob, I think you’ll really appreciate this one! Get a copy asap, so we can talk about it! :D

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I plan to! :D Well, after I’ve finished my enormous TBR pile, while I’m looking slightly guiltily at :D

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