Review: The Emperor's Knife by Marzarkis Williams

Saturday, February 28, 2015
Genre: fantasy
Series: The Tower and Knife Trilogy #1
Pages: 360 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: October 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

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 realise 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 tries for a lot with his fantasy debut, the tale of several people within an ancient but decaying Empire here in The Emperor's Knife. With wildly differing, interesting characters and a shifting point of view between them, Williams certainly begins his story on solid ground - The Emperor's Knife feels new and created rather than rehash or a re-imagining of another, already established place. There might not be the most original of plot-lines at the heart of the novel, especially for the fantasy genre, but Williams has a way with his words and this is a novel that is quickly engaging, quickly read and quickly finished. I found several aspects of the book to be quite well done and thought-out, but had issues with pacing down the line as well as the  too-frequent, often confusing, afmorementioned POV switches.

In the land of the Cerani Empire, life is hard and life is often cruel. That way of life is shown in the culture and personalities of nearly the entire royal family, from the scheming Tuvaini to the emotionally dead withdrawn Nessaket. Sarmin, easily the most sympathetic and likeable guy of the whole book, is the sole survivor of the purge of his 5 brothers, excepting the Emperor Beyon. Broken mentally by seeing his male siblings cut down on Beyon's ascension to power Sarmin has remained in one room his whole life. Sarmin is a surprising character: for a room-ridden Prince that no one knows of you wouldn't expect much but he was by far the nicest and most well-rounded of all the cast. Imprisoned within silk and stone, Sarmin grows from a scared boy into a mature, thinking man. It's not hard to see that I was rooting for him (and even his love interest I didn't care too much for) for a happy ending.

That love interest is the female protagonist of the novel, Mesema. Sent from the tribes outside the Empire to get an heir with the hidden Prince, she is the typical fantasy trope of an tribal fish-out-of-water in a cultured pond. Unkind, judgemental and even kind of racist, Mesema is a tough nut to crack. She knows the dangers of Nooria, and of the Empire (her mother warns her to get pregnant only once and then use a tar(?)/some substance to prevent more pregnancies. My question is: why didn't the previous Emperor's harem do the same if they knew their kids would be murdered when Beyon ascended? Blehhh.)

 Like the rest of the female characters Amalya, Eldra, Nessaket, I never felt a true affinity for the Windreader of the Felt tribe. She becomes fairly annoying and demanding as her journey progresses, and then almost abandoned after the halfway mark. She seems vastly underutilized in the second part, only popping up at the most random and opportune moments. I liked her best with Beyon, honestly and the romance love triangles are all OVER the place in The Emperor's Knife (Mesema, Beyon, Sarmin; Mesema, Sarmin, Banreh; etc.), though I appreciated her for Sarmin as well. She works best as protagonist when with other characters, with them in charge.

It's also hard to get close to any of these characters, including ones I've not mentioned. Eyul, the royal assassin is a key part to both the past and the present of the Empire and of Sarmin's health, is a decent anti-hero. I wished for more time and more detail from the reticent character but the way too frequent POV shifts, one after another, from Eyul to Sarmin to Beyon to Mesema was disjointing. Nessaket also had potential to be the kind of villain that a reader could really enjoy, but she seemed to be tossed aside in favor of a less compelling, less interesting character the further the novel progressed. There was very little continuous time with just one or two characters at length, instead jumping perspective in what seemed like five page increments.

With a lack of any real tension until nearly the very end and character deaths that had little to no impact upon me, The Emperor's Knife is not a novel that cuts to the heart of the reader: it's a bit superficial and the occasional gorey death does a lot to keep interest from flagging. I was also probably more upset by the deaths than excited for the romances because none (welll maybe just one) of them felt entirely believable or honest for the characters within the relationship: I didn't like Mesema and Banreh's interactions, I didn't like Sarmin and his carrier's complications to the plot, etc. The romances just seemed joined with the easiest candidates and I wanted some chemistry.

Much like a favorite of mine, Brandon Sanderson, a prolific author that both manages to write huge intimidating tomes of novels (Way of Kings, anyone? It clocks in at a tidy 1007 pages) and create unique magic systems for them, Mazarkis Williams has at least two different known magical systems in play for his novel. Both of them, in my opinion, are quite inventive and... well, I believe "awesome" is the most applicable word. The pattern marks that appear on the inflicted are much more than they appear to be, and while I won't spoil the ending, I though it was a marvelous spin on the predicted outcome. It's vague and unexplained until it seems almost obvious, and I have to credit William's authorial sleight-of-hand on that magical count.

The other magic, which I will go into a bit more, is that of the mages of the Tower. They are few in number and each mage corresponds to a certain element: fire, earth, water, air, spirit. While that aspect of elements for power might not be the most original, Williams' spin on the trope is: the element the mage most relates to is actually an elemental spirit that will be encased within/made part of the mage, fighting to get free as the mage continually siphons off the power of the spirit. I loved this: the mages aren't immortal or all-powerful in this world. They have to trade, to barter away their very lives for a tenuous grip on power for, at most, a few decades of magic. It's an interesting idea for an Empire that relies so on its magic - it's an unsteady and unreliable but essential part of the Cerani Empire.

It's a mixed bag for The Emperor's Knife for this fantasy fan. I liked the worldbuilding that was present: quiet but with an Arabic or Asian touch, especially the shifting sand dunes and relentless heat made for a newish locale with imported homages from the real world. I loved the magical aspects and limited appearance they had on the plot and characters, I just wished for more oomph, for better female characters and less POV jumping. There's a lot to enjoy in this world and these characters, I just want there to be more to it. Less hiding, more showing to Eyul, Govnan, the Pattern Master, etc. It's thoroughly engaging if not the most action-packed fantasy fare, with an ending that left me mildly anxious for the second in the series.

 I'd tell any hardcore fantasy fan to give The Emperor's Knife at least a try - it has potential to grow into a truly epic story with flawed, real characters. Here's hoping for book 2. 

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