The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

Nightshade Books, December 2011    
Hardcover, 352 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-59780-384-7      
Book one of The Knife Sworn           
Review copy courtesy from Nightshade Books


The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams tells the tale of a disease spreading through the Cerani Empire, and how it affects the Emperor, the people and the fate of the Empire itself. This disease leaves pronounced, clear markings on its victims so keeping an affliction secret is a most challenging prospect. 

Williams focuses the narrative on a limited cast of characters: the Emperor Beyon; his secretly imprisoned brother Sarmin; Mesema, his bride-to-be from a distant land; Eyul, the titular Emperor’s Knife and chief assassin; and a lord, High Vizier Tuvaini.  Initially, the focus is on the imprisoned (yet comforted) Sarmin and it is a bit challenging to get a full handle on his situation.  Shifting to other characters broadens the scope of the novel and helped to give weight to the spreading cancer through the Cerani Empire.

Set in a fully realized secondary world, the Asiatic / Middle Eastern flavor comes across as exotic and vivid.  At times, I was reminded a bit of Eärwa, the world in which R. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse saga takes place or even elements the world of Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esselmont’s Malazan saga and the saga begun with Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man. In addition to the solid world-building employed through the characters, Williams also unravels a plot that is not predictable or entirely straightforward. A great deal of subterfuge is part of the novel as the truth of Sarmin’s life is not known.  Much of the Empire believes Beyon is the only surviving member of his family as a result of a purging and a plan is proposed that should the Emperor Beyon succumb to the disease, Sarmin will be placed on the throne.  Though large external conflicts exist and threaten the Empire, Williams chooses to show this conflict through the lenses of his fractured characters.  This provides a nice contrast of the intimate and large scope.

One mysterious character could change the course of the plague events of the Empire, or he could be the cause of it – the Pattern Master.  The identity of this character isn’t immediately clear and serves to add another welcome level of mystery to an already thickly layered plot. I alluded to two authors in comparing the setting of the novel – R. Scott Bakker and the team of Erikson/Esslemont. While the setting of The Emperor’s Knife evokes some of the same imagery, the narrative is much less dense.  That is, Williams’s novel is relatively short at just over 350 pages.  

I thought the mystery opening passages were intriguing enough to pull me into the story, but as the novel progressed, that initial strength seemed to lessen and the pacing lagged at times.  Perhaps my biggest problem was my inability to distinguish the primary characters from each other. Their voices tended to meld with one another to the point I had to re-read some passages to get handle on whose POV I was reading. I appreciate the world building, ambition of the plot, but my difficulties in getting a handle on the characters prevented me from enjoying the novel as much as I hoped.  I realize I may be in the minority in my experience with The Emperor’s Knife, but it just didn’t work for me. 


© 2012 Rob H. Bedford

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