The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams

There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that marks each victim with a fragment of a greater design. And as the geometric patterns cover the skin, so the victims fall under the power of the Pattern Master. The lost prince Sarmin, the emperor’s only surviving brother, lies locked in a hidden room. As the pattern draws closer to the palace he is at last remembered, and now he awaits the bride his mother has chosen: Mesema, a Windreader from the northern plains. She is used to riding free across the grasslands, now she must learn the politicking of the Court is not a game, but deadly earnest. Eyul, imperial assassin, is burdened by the atrocities he has committed, and his advancing years. As commanded he bears the Emperor’s Knife to the desert in search of a cure for the pattern-markings. Conspiracies soon boil over into open violence and the enemy moves toward victory. Now 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 grasses.

If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, should you not judge an author by their name? ‘Mazarkis’ is without doubt a name that catches the eye and it was partly because of this (and partly the suitably fantastical, if rather generic, cover) that convinced me The Emperor’s Knife was a book worth investigating.

As when reading all debuts, there’s always a mix of trepidation and excitement. What lies beyond the front cover is a complete mystery, one that could unravel to prove permanently memorable or shockingly disappointing. Thankfully Williams’ first efforts here fall easily into the first category, and not necessarily for the expected reasons.

What’s most striking about The Emperor’s Knife is the style in which the story is imparted. Though all the usual facets are present in the form of eloquent world-building and textured character introductions and developments, Williams’ overall approach adds something a bit different - a style of writing that absorbs from the outset.

There’s a poetic, artistic and extremely visual feel to Williams’ work that overrides everything taking place between the pages. As a reader you are almost serenaded into the story, pulled deeper and deeper into the novel without ever really realising it. In addition, Williams frequently leads you to the edge of tantalising cliff hangers, and then on future return to the situation, has skipped past the ‘main event’. You’re left piecing together what’s gone before and keeping up with the book’s surprisingly consistent momentum.

Indeed the prose maintains a constant pace throughout, generating a permanent tension that saturates every aspect of the story. The less dramatic scenes unfold with just as much tension and intrigue as the ‘action’ scenes, and for the entire duration of the book there’s a strong feeling that each chapter could be the last.

Williams’ hook is The Pattern, and it is a thing of puzzling, terrifying, beauty. A plague that claims people’s lives and minds, it promises more than just death. A disease that is never fully defined, The Pattern resides in the wind, the grass, the sand and the sky, whilst blossoming also across peoples’ skin. Even when in this last more tangible form, it’s an ever-changing phenomenon, appearing differently on everyone and casting a different future for each individual. It’s as much a psychological disease as it is physical, affecting the mind of each character, whether they are ‘marked’ and suffering, or living in fear of its arrival.

Though Williams’ characters are not what make The Emperor’s Knife great, they are well crafted, convincing and far from wanting.

Mesema (a young Felt girl on her way to an arranged marriage with Prince Sarmin) and Prince Sarmin (the imprisoned brother of Emperor Beyon) are both interesting and engaging. Their journeys, as well as their eventual union, are fun to follow, with their final moments in the book proving one the novel’s highlights. The man behind it all, The Pattern Master, is an ever elusive enemy, and Williams’ style does much to keep the reader trying to discern who holds this prestigious title. Emperor Beyon and High Lord Vizier Tuvaini are also well-moulded characters, both of which keep you guessing as to their true intentions.

But it is The Emperor’s Knife himself, Eyul (known better as the Emperor’s assassin), who stands out from the crowd. As the only one able to draw royal blood, he works at the behest of his Emperor. During the course of the book he undergoes a significant transformation. Continually questioning the motives of his Emperor and the role he himself plays in the future of the empire, Eyul becomes increasingly absorbed in his actions. Where initially he wielded the blade and carried the responsibility of his Emperor’s decisions solidly on his shoulders, by the end of the novel Eyul has truly become the blade, accepting the death he wreaks with new fervour. His is a fascinating character evolution and deserved of the book’s title.

The voices that tell Williams’ story of power and desire are rich and textured, with the author’s distinctive, artistic, style making all the political intrigue and backstabbing stand out in a crowded genre. But despite the deftness with which the pawns in Williams’ story are played, they remain just a small part of a much larger picture – one you are never permitted to forget.

The plot is wonderfully unpredictable, making for a lively and vibrant read that’s tied together by Williams’ beautifully artistic vision of a land wrought with fear and death. His settings are well presented though typical, making only the ‘secret ways’ beneath the palace really stand out. These dark passages work as a superbly constructed alter-ego to the palace itself, forming a literal underbelly to the luxurious rooms above where everyone holds their masks so firmly in place. Down there beneath the gilded stone and silken curtains, is where the real politics happen.

By the end of The Emperor’s Knife it is not the characters, their struggles, or the fate of the Cerani or the Felts that will stay with you, but a much broader feeling of having experienced Williams’ story. The Emperor’s Knife is a tale of fear and fluidity, of evolution and ego, and is one that is dictated in a style so visual and penetrating that it will have the Pattern invading your dreams long after the final pages have turned.

9/10 Wonderfully unpredictable, making for a lively and vibrant read.

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