The Emperor’s Knife (A ‘wary but interested’ review)

The Emperor's KnifeThe Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.9 stars.
The Emperor’s Knife is a good book, but it is not a fantastic book. The best thing about this book is how it gives at least four very different characters enough time and sufficient voice to introduce and explain themselves to us. And you need to understand them if you hope to understand the book.
Its strongest point has to be the intricate court politics that keeps the reader on tenterhooks as a coup, many years in planning, is finally carried out.
The Emperor’s Knife is Eyul, an assassin chosen in his boyhood because of his inability to take a life out of vengeance. He was given the Knife to wield, to carry out the Emperor’s will and only he could ever spill royal blood without damnation.
In the very first chapter we watch as he carries out a dead king’s last command and earns the hatred of two young princes.
The most intriguing idea that this novel explores is that of a prince kept a prisoner in a high tower (Rapunzel, anyone?) from the day his father dies to his manhood, with only his mother an occasional (if cold and distant) visitor. Sarmin is the spare, kept alive in case something happened to his elder brother, the boy-king – Beyon.
They live in a land plagued by inexplicable marks that appear suddenly on a body and takes over ones soul.
In a distant land, in a tribe that prepares to ally itself to Beyon’s empire as they ready for a war, the chief’s daughter is promised in marriage to the Emperor’s brother. But Mesema knows nothing about the patterns that plague the Cerani kingdom, nor of the tradition that demands the lives of young princes when their brother ascends the throne.
And finally there is Tuivani. A cousin to the Emperor, a keen eyed Vizier, a patriot in his own way and an unwitting tool in the hands of the Pattern Master as he spins a web that will soon unseat Beyon and bring the empire to his own feet.
Sarmin, Eyul, Tuivani and Mesema are the eyes that tell the tale from their own corners. Sometimes their paths intersect and information is exchanged, but most of the time they are each stumbling around blindly as they try to make best of situations thrust at them.
Tuivani is the man who kept Sarmin imprisoned most of his life, for he feared that a living brother might have the Emperor’s ear more than a distant cousin and adviser could. So he whispered the wisdom of keeping the young prince segregated from all to a vulnerable and insecure Beyon, and Beyon – strong and weak – listened and hated him for it.
But I couldn’t hate Tuivani. Individually the characters are given so much soul, so much complexity that I came away with an odd sense of empathy for each of them.
Unfortunately, when the characters interacted this wonderful complexity fell short of what it could have been. There were dramatics, but suddenly all the feelings went missing.
Sarmin and Mesema spent a better part of the book imagining what the other might be like and yet when they did meet, it was a sadly flat union.
[UPDATE 19Dec’11: I made an unforgivable mistake with one of the character names that confused me very much as I neared the end of the book. The author’s right, there are too many names with ‘B’. 😉 So there’s a change in the spoiler below.]
MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD
There is an instance of insta-love that made me grit my teeth really hard. Sarmin saves a girl who had originally tried to kill him under the influence of the pattern. He cures her (yep, the prince has magic – and of the oldest kind) but is injured and needs her to run for help from the mages. For reasons I wont clarify he can’t leave his tower even when the doors are open and his guards dead. He finds that he can slip into her mind (more like a companion instead of a puppeteer) and guide her to the Tower. In the very next scene when he’s waking up after being cured by a mage, he decides he wants the girl (the first one he’s seen in years) and in two more scenes decides he’s in love with her.
And despite all this, he’s still deeply fixated with Mesema. :headslap:
END
The world created is rather fascinating. The rituals and traditions, intriguing. The magic is curious and divergent, and the palace’s wariness of the Tower of the Mages is understandable. But the Tower has kept the empire protected and so it must stand. The Cerani empire is the picture of a once great kingdom rotting and leaning towards its downfall despite the apparent prosperity of the nobility (Think: fall of Rome).
I’ll read the next two installments, of course, though this book stands alone and complete all by itself – the end, exactly what you would hope it should be with most of the strings brought conveniently and rather simplistically together. But if the author wants to tell me more about this world, I’m willing and happy to listen.

DISCLOSURE – I was originally given a copy of this book by netgalley, whom I have long owed a review for this, but now I have a hardcover copy of my own. The coverart might be over-used but I love the pattern marks. 🙂

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