Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams

Posted by Simcha 3:23 PM, under | 5 comments

There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike, marking each victim with a fragment of a greater pattern. Anyone showing the marks is put to death. That is Emperor Beyon's law . . .

But now the pattern is reaching closer to the palace than ever before. In a hidden room, a forgotten prince has grown from child to man, and as the empire sickens, Sarmin, the emperor’s only surviving brother, is remembered. He awaits the bride his mother has chosen: a chieftain’s daughter from the northern plains.

Mesema travels from her homeland, an offering for the empire’s favour. She is a Windreader, used to riding free across the grasslands, not posing and primping in rare silks. She finds the Imperial Court’s protocols stifling, but she doesn’t take long to realize the politicking and intrigues are not a game, but deadly earnest.

Eyul is burdened both by years and by the horrors he has carried out in service to the throne. At his emperor’s command 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 and rebellion, the enemy moves toward victory. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who once saw a path through a pattern, among the waving grasses.

Mazarkis Williams pieces together a complex mosaic of personality and ambition in a brilliant work of magic and mystery set in a richly imagined world, the first book in a fantastic new series.


The Emperor's Knife kicks off with a dramatic start as young prince Sarmin is taken from his bed one night and locked up in the top of a tower and his younger siblings are brought outside and murdered. Only Sarmin's older brother, Beyon, has been left alive and he now rules as emperor.

Fifteen years later Sarmin is still confined to his small room in the tower with only five books to keep him company and the occasional visit from his mother. Few even know that he is still alive. But suddenly a new visitor appears in Sarmin's room, the High Vizier, Tuvaini, and he wants Sarmin's cooperation. A terrible disease has been spreading through out the kingdom, marking all those afflicted with geometric patterns across their skin, eventually taking over their mind. According to the law anyone infected must immediately be put to death, and Vizier fears that the Emperor himself may be marked. And since the emperor has no children Sarmin is next in line for the throne. But years of isolation have had their impact on Sarmin and he may not be capable to becoming the ruler that the kingdom needs.

Eyul, the royal assassin, wields the Emperor's Knife, the only blade permitted to spill the blood of royalty. He is the one who murdered Sarmin's siblings and who will kill the emperor himself, should it become necessary. A lifetime of killing has taken it's toll on Eyul and when he is sent on a mission to seek advice from the hermit in the desert he begins to question what his purpose really is and to who he owes his allegiance.

Mesema is a plains-woman from the North, where women ride horses and are able read patterns in the wind. When the Imperial Court requests a a wife for Prince Sarmin from the Plains-Tribe Mesma is given over, despite her protests. She knows nothing of the prince or of the Imperial Court but along the way she will encounter the Pattern from the first time and will do whatever it takes to make sure that it never reaches her own home and those she loves.

As the pattern spreads, eventually infiltrating into the palace, it seems like no one is safe from this mysterious disease. Those loyal to the emperor are determined to find a cure while everyone else schemes and plots in anticipation of the emperor's eminent downfall.

The Emperor's Knife is a very impressive debut novel that takes place in Middle-Eastern-like setting, full of interesting and complex characters and following a plot rife with conspiracies and political intrigue. There is some magic here as well, though I didn't get a very clear understanding on the importance of it to the story or how it worked. For example, the mages do magic with the help of elemental creatures that inhabit their bodies and eventually destroy them, but we really spend very little time with any mages and don't learn much about them or their magic. There is also no clear explanation as to how the Pattern spreads from person to person, which caused me some confusion.

After the exciting beginning the story slows down quite a bit and I had some trouble sticking with it. This was particularly true during Eyul's trek in the desert in search of the hermit, which seemed to crawl by. But after that episode was concluded the pace sped up once more and I easily got caught up in the events that followed, especially once Mesema enters the story ( she was my favorite). Towards the end, as all the political maneuvering comes to a head, I became a bit confused about certain events which I didn't feel were explained as clearly as they could have been. I did appreciate the fact that there weren't an overwhelming amount of characters involved, so at least I didn't have trouble remember who was who and what side they were on.

Mesema, Eyul and Sarmin are at the center of the story and the narration frequently switches between each of their point of views, which I found slightly frustrating. While I did appreciate being able to see events unfold from each of the different perspectives,the frequent change in POV's disrupted the flow of the story for me.

The Emperor's Knife is intended to be the first in a trilogy but at the end nearly all the issues have been resolved so this could easily be read as a stand-alone novel as well.  

While The Emperor's Knife had a few awkward bits, overall I enjoyed it very much and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy with rich characterization and lots of political intrigue.

5 comments:

Frequent changes in POVs..yes that seldom if ever works for me.

Not sure if this one is for me or not, but it does sound like it has a good premise to it.

Hm... not sure if this would be too slow for me but you have me curious about the setting and the intrigue. Oh I think when I'm in the mood for a fantasy, I may give it a try.

The setting sounds exotic and something I'd be drawn to anyway. But the shifting POVs have me worried.

Blodeuedd: Yeah, I don't like that much either but for some reason it didn't prevent me from connecting with the characters.

Melissa: Other reviewers actually seem to feel that this book was fast paced, so perhaps it just seemed slow to me. You should give it a try.

Stephanie: I can't tell if this is a book you would enjoy since I don't recall you reviewing this kind of book before. Though if you do want to try it, it's not a particularly long book.

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