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The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

November 30, 2011

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 his 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 ageing imperial assassin, the Emperor’s Knife. When Beyon’s patterns are revealed and the Grand Vizier seizes the throne, the Knife spirits her to safety. 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 girl from the steppes who saw a path in a pattern once, among the waving grasses – a path that just might save them all.


When I first received a copy of The Emperor’s Knife, I have to admit I had to read the blurb about three times before I actually took it in and understood what it was about. It’s a very long description packed full of ideas, and I was instantly dubious as to whether or not a book of this size – 388 pages – would be able to deliver what it promised. On the one hand, it was great to be able to read a fantasy novel that isn’t 600-plus pages like The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, for example. Sadly, however, I think The Emperor’s Knife would have benefitted from either more pages to flesh out its somewhat complicated plotline, or fewer ideas and a slower pace.

First of all, I found the writing style quite didn’t quite pull me into the story as much as I wanted it to. At times it’s very detached and disjointed, and doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense at times. It jumps from idea to idea very quickly, leaving the reader slightly clueless as to what’s meant to be happening. This happened a few too many times for me, and it really held me back from wanting to read on. I think Mazarkis Williams definitely had some fantastic ideas here; from the patterned disease that appears on a person’s skin, leaving them at the mercy and control of the Pattern Master. It’s an intriguing concept, and unlike anything I’ve come across before. Of course, I’m not widely read in fantasy, and I have seen a few other reviewers liken it to the novels of Robin Hobb, so I’m probably just being naive here. The characterisation was great. In particular I warmed most to Mesema, the windreader who has been forced to leave her home and marry the Emperor’s brother, who she has yet to even meet. These aren’t particularly new ideas, but Mesema as a character is very endearing and you can’t help but feel for her as she is drawn into the politics and corruption of the Emperor’s palace. The character I found most difficult to get on with was Sarmin, the Emperor’s mad brother, and Mesema’s betrothed. I can accept the fact that he is meant to be slightly insane, but there are frequent passages of him talking to some angel and demon figures he can see in ceiling above him, and I felt these could have been written better to really portray what exactly was happening because I got very lost at these points, and found myself skim-reading to get past them. As the story draws to an end, you do start to see another side of Sarmin, one which I can see coming much more to the forefront in the next novel of the Tower and Knife series.

My least favourite thing of all about this novel has to be the romantic scenes between a number of the characters. Not only did they develop out of seemingly nowhere, but they felt very cliché. I didn’t care enough about their relationships, and had no desire to see them together or not, and I think this ultimately was the novel’s biggest downfall. Mesema, for instance, seems to love about three of the men at different points and I just didn’t find it believable. It isn’t just the relationships that have very little room to grow, but also the plot as well. I mentioned earlier that I felt the novel should have been longer to accommodate for the many, many ideas Williams has explored, and I really feel this to be true. Generally, I found the pace quite slow throughout most of the novel, but suddenly numerous events took place very quickly which threw it slightly off balance.

Despite my negative points discussed in this review, I do think Mazarkis Williams shows promise as a writer. This novel isn’t perfect, but as far as I’m concerned they are teething problems that can be sorted out by the time it comes to the next novel in the series. Williams has created some wonderfully imaginative ideas that will intrigue you and keep you reading. Some readers may welcome the small low page-count and quick succession of events, rather than waiting hundreds of pages for the action to begin. But if you like more descriptive, meandering fantasy novels then this probably won’t be to your liking. I’m still slightly unsure as to whether I will pick up the second novel or not, if I do it will be because I want to see where Mesema’s story takes her next…

The Emperor’s Knife is out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy for review.



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