Mazarkis Williams – The Emperor’s Knife

Mazarkis Williams - The Emperor's KnifeA plague is attacking the Cerani Empire: as the geometric patterns cover the skin, so the victims fall under the power of the Pattern Master.

Only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl who once saw a path through the waving grass.

Mazarkis Williams is an author I’ve been aware of for a couple of years. They – since Mazarkis Williams is a pen name and the author’s identity and gender is unknown (to me at least, though I have my suspicions) I’ll be referring to the author as they – are part of the group of authors known as the Booksworn, several of whom are authors I’ve read and enjoyed and some of whom I regularly chat with on Twitter. So it was to my shame that I had to admit I hadn’t read any of their books, when I was approached about reviewing the final book in the Tower & Knife series, The Tower Broken, which was published late November last year. Fortunately, the publisher was kind enough to send me the whole series for review, so I could rectify the oversight. And I’m glad I got that chance, because judging by the first book, this trilogy and Williams’ writing is right up my alley. 

The setting for The Emperor’s Knife is an interesting mix of desert and plains cultures. Most of the story is set in Nooria, the Cerani capital, but we also travel to the desert and to the plains of the Felt. The desert culture actually felt more Northern African/Egyptian than Middle Eastern, but that might be due to the fact the Nekasset seems a name that one of the Pharaohs’ queens could have worn. There are a lot of juxtapositions between the desert and the plains peoples, not least in their treatment of their women, but also in their architecture and their religions. I loved the different forms of magic Williams created, the elemental magic of the Tower and the more mathematical magic of the Pattern Master. The genesis of the pattern magic is hinted at, but never really identified and I wonder whether we’ll learn more about that in the next book.

The main characters, who had their own point-of-view, were Sarmir, Mesema, Tuvaini, and Eyul. All of them are compelling in their own way; Sarmir’s slightly unbalanced outlook on life is fascinating, yet his still having retained his innate good nature makes him oddly appealing; Mesema’s unfettered ways and tongue might have gotten her into more trouble than she could have gotten out off, if not for the events of the book and the natural rapport she has with both Emperor Beyon and Sarmir; Tuvaini is the villain you love to hate, yet he’s also very human and in his flawed nature strikingly capable of love; and Eyul, the titular Emperor’s Knife, was astonishingly well-drawn. He might actually have been my favourite point-of-view. Not just because he travels beyond Nooria, but also because his is the more quietly profound emotional journey. He rediscovers his humanity and has to learn to live with who he is after his armour has been cracked. Beyond these four the most important and intriguing characters are Empire Mother Nekasset, High Mage Govnan, Fire Mage Amalya, Emperor Beyon, and the Pattern Master. I found all of them intriguing, though not all of them equally sympathetic. All of them are multi-faceted and complex, though I would have liked to learn more about Amalya and Govnan in particular as, comparatively, they were less developed.

All four major female characters defy their designated role in society, though all in their separate ways. The position of women in the two cultures we encounter closely, the Cerani and the Felt, is almost completely opposite of each other; Felt women are required to prove their fertility through the bearing of plains-children before marriage, while the Cerani value virginity and at least the royal women are locked away in a seraglio, where Felt women live among their menfolk. What they have in common though, is that the women need to obey their husbands, fathers, and lords and it is here that Mesema and Nessaket differ. Mesema doesn’t fit the Cerani seraglio, because she’ll always speak her mind and Nessaket isn’t content with the pampered, but powerless position of a wife and mother, she actively schemes to gain the throne for someone she can dominate. Amalya is set outside the usual societal expectations for women, due to her nature as a mage, while Grada is an Untouchable who dares to strive for a life beyond her class. Grada’s circumstances are complicated or rather her desires are wakened due to her connection to Prince Sarmin, who befriends her, even though contact between an Untouchable and a Prince is impossible. I like that these women break the norm in such different ways and show those around them that things can be different. They also give the book plenty of opportunities to pass the Bechdel test, which it does.

In addition to an interesting setting and characters, The Emperor’s Knife has an equally interesting plot featuring the puzzle of the pattern master’s identity and motivation, intricate and cut-throat palace politics, and the role of the Carriers. The ending of the book was satisfying, though a little sudden. It wraps up well, but at a rapid pace and I hadn’t expected it to wrap up quite as thoroughly. I really enjoyed this first book of the Tower & Knife series and The Emperor’s Knife scratched the epic fantasy itch I’d been feeling since finishing my last epic fantasy read in mid-December. Williams’ writing is good with sometimes lovely descriptive flourishes and compelling characters, none of whom are safe, all of whom might not survive the book. It also stands alone quite well, while still leaving you wanting more and I was glad I could dive into the second book, Knife Sworn, immediately. Expect a review for that soon.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


2 thoughts on “Mazarkis Williams – The Emperor’s Knife”

  1. I wanted to like this one so much, and it had so much good going through it. But I bogged down to the point where reading it felt like a chore. I actually gave up at the 70% mark when I found I had lost the desire. Glad to see it worked better for you, I sure saw the potential.

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