Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Book Review: The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams

The Emperor's Knife
By Mazarkis Williams
Night Shade Books
ARC from Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher


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 ageing 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 girl from the steppes who saw a path in a pattern once, among the waving grasses - a path that just might save them all.


Fantasy is one of my favourite genres, as our groaning bookshelves can testify. I even like all the archetypes, tales that tell the same story just in a slightly different manner. That's not to say I don't fantasy books that are different, I like those too. Sometimes it can be difficult to find original fantasy, but with The Emperor's Knife that isn't a problem. I love the Emperor's Knife as a title, such a good one for a royal assassin!

Our fantasy tale takes us to a land that I think has more of an Eastern flavour, rather than the usual western Europe, medieval-type feel. The book has four main point of views, Prince Sarmin, locked up as a child and kept as security in case the emperor has no heirs who is slowly going mad from his incarceration. Mesema a young girl from the grasslands being brought to the city for an arranged marriage with Prince Sarmin; Tuvaini, the emperor's advisor and Eyul, the titular character - the royal assassin.

There is a plague spreading through the empire, one that covers its victims in strange geometric patterns and no one is immune - not even the emperor. When the marks start appearing, the young emperor Beyon, has all of his body slaves killed and hopes no one will notice. Those not killed outright by the disease, become Carriers, their wills not their own but that of the pattern master who uses them as weapons. The law means death to any who carry the marks, but what to do with the man who made those laws and now bears the marks?

This was a wonderful epic tale that sweeps you up and keeps you turning page after page to see what happens. The world building is very good, you see the different landscapes, customs and different religions of the different tribes and peoples, they are not all the same and the differences make for interesting reading. The book has a bit of everything, romance, treachery, betrayal, political intrigue.

The characters are well-drawn and complex with their own desires and cares, no cardboard cut-outs here. Each has their own ideas and their own role within the world and when a chapter is from a particular character's point of view, you know it is that character, those chapters have their own individual voice (even though the book is told from a third person narrative).

A fascinating tale from start to finish.

Reviewed by Annette Gisby, author of The Chosen.

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