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Monday, November 28, 2011

“The Emperor’s Knife” by Mazarkis Williams (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo & Robert Thompson)

Order “The Emperor’s KnifeHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read Civilian Reader’s Interview with Mazarkis Williams HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Mazarkis Williams has roots in both Britain and America, having been educated—has earned degrees in history & physics—and working in both, and now divides time between Bristol and Boston. The Emperor’s Knife is his first novel.

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 Mesema, a Felt bride for Prince Sarmin. 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.

MIHIR’S ANALYSIS: Mazarkis Williams’ The Emperor’s Knife is a debut book which has been under the radar for most fantasy readers. The book’s blurb details an empire which has been rotting and rests upon three individuals to stop the events, which might lead to its annihilation. Such a blurb wouldn’t necessarily give a clear picture of the actual book and it does seem to make the plot out to be very generic as well.

That’s the first mistake you make about the book assuming that the plot will be generic. While the book’s plot does feature court intrigue, a traditional story structure and individuals who have the power to change the course of events, there’s much more to The Emperor’s Knife including a plague that causes colorful geometric shapes to appear and make them mindless drones who act as a singular entity.

The story opens with a prologue set years in the past and details a crucial event which shapes Prince Sarmin’s life from that moment onwards. The book then shifts to the present time as he awaits his life within an environment that he does not fully understand, but is comforted by. From here, the plot begins rather suddenly as the reader is thrown into the world of the Cerani, the Felt people, etc. and the reader has to pick up on the clues and descriptions provided by the author and connect the dots to gain an understanding of the story and the problems which are occurring. The main mystery thread consists of the aforementioned plague and the Pattern Master.

At the core of this story are the three main POVs of Prince Sarmin, Mesema and Eyul. Mesema is a Felt girl who has been chosen by her father to be a bride to Prince Sarmin of the Cerani empire. Mesema is not thrilled by this decision, but cannot disobey her father. Eyul meanwhile, is an assassin who’s the only person appointed by the emperor in the line of the Knife-Sworn to wield the royal Knife with which royal blood can be spilled and the wielder is not damned. There’s also Tuvaini, the court vizier who wants to do right by the empire and shares an important part of the story, although whose side he’s on is never made
abundantly clear. There are a few other supporting characters who take part in the plot, but they do not get their own POVs and it would be better for the reader to find out about them via the book.

As a whole, characterization is a major plus as each voice is distinct from the other, with each chapter opening up a new facet for each character. Prose, though good, is a bit spartan in its approach; while the author provides the bare requirement when it comes to world-building, which can hamper the reading experience at times. Another point which undermines the novel is the pacing of the story. On the plus side, the overall mystery is wrapped up satisfactorily with most of the plot threads reasonably concluded except for a couple. Which of course lead to the second book in the trilogy, Knife-Sworn.

Overall, I enjoyed The Emperor’s Knife for telling a story of people broken by the psychological nature of past events and their striving to do the right thing. Even though Mazarkis Williams’ debut did not possess the gritty violent aspect of the Prince of Thorns or the fast-paced nature of The Whitefire Crossing, The Emperor’s Knife is a very good book, especially for those who like to be surprised by plot twists and enjoy clean economical prose. In short, I am looking forward to the second book in the Tower and Knife Trilogy as I am very curious to see where Mazarkis Williams takes the characters and plot next...

ROBERT’S ANALYSIS: The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams 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 helped offset the familiar elements, while making it easier to feel sympathy for the various 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 where 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 Mazarkis 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, like Mihir, I greatly enjoyed The Emperor’s Knife and look forward to reading the rest of the Tower and Knife Trilogy...


Bibliotropic said...

I finished reading this one the other day (my review of it is going to be appearing on my blog later this week), and I was quite impressed that this is Williams's debut novel. There's some serious talent here, and I took look forward to seeing what's to come in future books.


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