A debut with great potential
There is a cancer at the heart of the Cerani Empire.
A plague is attacking young and old, rich and poor, marking each victim with a fragment of a greater pattern. Anyone showing the marks is put to death.
As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence and rebellion, the pattern is closing in on the palace.
Only three people stand in its way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer and a young girl from the steppes – a girl who once saw a path through a pattern, among the waving grasses.
The Emperor’s Knife is a debut fantasy with both an original and classic feel. It draws on some classic fantasy elements, but puts a new spin on them, making this a refreshingly original politics-infused novel. While not a page-turning action adventure, the novel has a strong grasp on political intrigue and a slow-boiling plot that will draw the reader in and work its way under your skin.
Williams has created an interesting culture for his series – it is partly influenced by Middle Eastern nations, with a quite a strong (apparent) Turkish or Ottoman feel, only set in a desert location. Some fantasy tropes are featured – for example, the conniving Lord High Vizier – but the world, characters and plot manage to steer it away from unoriginality and deja vu.
The Emperor’s Knife is steeped in palace politics, intrigue and power squabbles. The Emperor describes the Imperial Palace as a “garden full of snakes”, filled with factions vying for attention or power, manipulating others into position for maximum gain and effect. There is also some well-placed commentary on the historical nature of international and royal relations, comprised of “deals with wombs and weapons” – which is probably one of the best phrases I’ve read in years, fully encapsulating the reality of much of the history of international relations.
To delve too much into the events of the novel will potentially spoil things for a first-time reader, so I’m going to keep the review pretty general and focus on impressions of characters, plot and style.
The novel follows a number of perspectives, but there are three that are more central to the story. Mesema, the daughter of a lord from the steppes, traded to the Cerani in return for favour. Eyul, the world-weary assassin of the synopsis – idealistic in his way, uncomfortable with the frequency with which he is called on to kill, yet peerlessly capable at his profession. Caught up in the conspiracies, Eyul sets out to discover the root of the pattern, and perhaps save the Empire he serves and loves. Sarmin, the hidden and last-surviving brother of the Emperor, locked away in an opulent prison for decades, away from the eyes and attention of those who might wish him harm. He’s gone a little mad, locked away for so long in a single room, under guard and with minimal contact with the outside world and its people. His isolation has had a profound impact on his psyche, manifesting his gifts and potential as a mage into an affinity for patterns and other related arts. All three of these characters are engaging and fascinating to read about. Eyul in particular stood out for me, but both Sarmin and Mesema also offer some great chapters and scenes.
While the language Williams uses is predominantly very atmospheric and engrossing, it can at times be a bit florid or opaque. The first handful of chapters will completely draw the reader in – I found myself utterly engrossed and seduced by the world the author has created, and ended up spending hours in a Starbucks as my coffee grew stone-cold, forgotten while I was reading. This quality didn’t, unfortunately, last all the way through the novel. As the novel progressed, there were a few instances of slight confusion as to what was going on, which unfortunately meant the momentum suffered. It was difficult to get a handle on, and prevented it from being totally engrossing throughout. It’s an issue that is easily fixed, I think, so I have no doubt that by the second novel in the series, Williams will have solved this problem.
On the whole, however, the gentle pace and plotting drew me in – one doesn’t always want a rip-roaring adventure, after all – and I found myself losing track of time on a number of occasions. It won’t suit everyone’s tastes – the pace may be too slow for some readers who prefer more action-oriented fantasy and, while not devoid of action, The Emperor’s Knife is more slow-burning political drama than action-adventure. The overall flow and momentum of the novel is perhaps its main weakness.
All of the characters featured in The Emperor’s Knife are interesting and often original takes on some classic fantasy types. However, there are moments when seem to act out of character, or certain developments happen a little too suddenly (particularly love-interest). Part of this is down to the aforementioned pacing/flow issue, but also the stripped down narrative and world-building. It leaves the reader in a strange position: we want more world-building and character development (the setting is great), but are already a little concerned with the pacing. Strange. I can see that the author kept things lean in order to allow for a proper ending to this novel, however a couple of these characters develop in a relatively short space of time what other series might allow two or three novels to accomplish (or, if you’re unlucky, far more than three novels, seemingly without end...).
We see an Agrippina-like mother figure in Nessaket (Beyon and Sarmin’s mother); plotting now that she is free of her husband, working only to forward her own agenda. As the various factions start moving their pawns into position, executing their plans, her place changes and we see a far more vulnerable and fearful side of her. Nessaket and Tuvaini, the Vizier, are truly Machiavellian, and it is through their actions that we see just how dangerous and complex the palace politics of the Cerani Empire are. It’s great drama, played out subtly and delicately, with the patience of a master chess player.
It is through Mesema’s eyes that we get a better picture of the Cerani culture – she is an outsider, Sarmin’s prospective bride – and her perspective shows us the differences in character and temperament between her people and the somewhat arrogant Cerani. Mesema’s perspective is also a window into the hard lot of women in this world. Her people treat them like slaves or breeders, not much use other than serving the needs of the men. The Cerani treat them similarly, although the royal household does enjoy some extra freedoms. There are some good parallels with some of the customs of the cultures he’s used as inspiration for the world he has created.
There are a couple of interesting magic systems at play in the novel. First up – but not featured overly much – is the elemental magic of the official mages, which I thought has a lot of potential (the mages take an elemental spirit into themselves, and when they die they seem to swap places). The other, more central magic of the novel is that of the mysterious patterns that have plagued the Cerani empire, turning Carriers into mindless automatons. It’s intriguing from the start, to learn of this pattern-plague, and as we start seeing hints of what it might be and mean the mystery is unveiled in a rather satisfying way. That being said, it was not always clear how it worked, which left me feeling a little confused at times – this was mainly the result of the prose-issues I mention, above.
The Emperor’s Knife is sure to whet the appetites of lovers of epic fantasy, as it did mine. It offers so much potential that it is next to impossible not to sit up and take note, to be intrigued by his characters and setting. Mazarkis has gone for an uncommon setting, and populated it with some classic characters altered to suit his unique premise. However, I think it may be too soon to tell just how much of an impact he is going to have on the genre. There’s huge potential, so now I just have to wait until I get my hands on book two to know that he’s fulfilling it.
The novel is not flawless, and there were the aforementioned few momentum issues, but overall this is a solid debut from an author whose work I will most certainly be following in the future.
Also on CR: An Interview with Mazarkis Williams