One of my favorite reads of last year was Mazarkis Williams’s epic debut The Emperor’s Knife. Needless to say, when I was offered a review copy of Knife Sworn, I jumped at the opportunity. Knife Sworn continues the story of Sarmin, who had been locked up in a tower by his brother, the Emperor, for most of his life, and of Mesema, once a young foreign girl, brought to Nooria to marry Sarmin against her will. Like Williams’s writing, these characters have matured. Knife Sworn is everything that The Emperor’s Knife was—stunningly mysterious, original, and magically epic—but grown up, with higher stakes and an increased dose of intrigue and mystery.
An unspoken promise
The Emperor’s Knife is in many ways a standalone novel. While it is the first book in the Tower and Knife trilogy, it tells a contained story and builds its own complete world. Williams definitely left enough room for fleshing out this world, however. In a way, she made a promise to the readers of The Emperor’s Knife: “Look, here’s an awesome world with awesome magic, but I’m only telling you what you need to know; if you want more, you’ll simply have to come back for it.”
It’s this unspoken promise that Knife Sworn seems to focus on. For a brief moment, we leave the Arabian-influenced Cerani desert empire behind and travel to mountains and forest lands, where we meet a new culture, and more importantly, a new religion. This new religion plays a pivotal part in the plot of Knife Sworn. It doesn’t come entirely out of nowhere; the Mogyrk religion gracefully reticulates with the mysterious magic system established in The Emperor’s Knife. This magic system was one of the most significant strengths of the first book and continues to be so in Knife Sworn. Sarmin has come a long way in understanding the magic since the start of the trilogy, but his grasp of it was intuitive at best. When he is faced with the new challenges and complications of a magic he hardly understands, he often faces frustrations and repeatedly makes mistakes. Williams has chosen to go a different way than most epic fantasy authors in allowing her characters to take their time to develop magically, and she does it well. Sarmin’s abstract, almost philosophical endeavor to comprehend his world’s magic generates some of the best scenes in modern fantasy.
Stories old and new
As I said, The Emperor’s Knife told a contained story; Knife Sworn continues this. Yet, Williams does not in the least forget the events that came before. More than anything, this sequel deals with the aftermath of its predecessor. The empire has been left scarred by the final events of The Emperor’s Knife, and everyone in the city can feel consequences of the actions that were taken. This may be a contained story in many ways, but none of it would be relevant if not for what happened before. Everyone was changed, especially the main characters, and the way they deal with this change is what makes Knife Sworn a more mature revolution of The Emperor’s Knife. Williams has written a beautiful and intriguing character study chronicling the effects of her first novel, while still telling a new story that is equally bold and engrossing. In fact, she raises the stakes by introducing a new—and worse—thread to morally ambiguous characters who are already struggling.
While its healthy dose of realism makes Knife Sworn a character-driven story worth reading, this also slows it down at times. Just like the first book, this is definitely not a page-turner. The well fleshed out characters, political intrigue, and magical mystery ensure it never becomes monotonous, but Knife Sworn does lack progression at times. Too much time is spent establishing the various political stances of characters and laying out the problems they are facing before a climax is reached.
Additionally, once things start moving again in a marvelously orchestrated grand finale in which many threads of the plot are skillfully brought together, the execution lacks oomph. The ending comes all too soon and some stories are left untold. Frankly, after Williams took so much care to set higher stakes and lead the characters into such an explosive situation—which she truly does better than most any fantasy authors I’ve read—the pay-off is underwhelming at best. The rushed ending left a lot of Knife Sworn’s potential untapped. I can only hope that Williams intends to revisit some of these storylines in future novels in the Tower and Knife trilogy.
Why should you read this book?
Knife Sworn is a solid sequel in a marvelous trilogy of high fantasy. Unfortunately, it isn’t as good as The Emperor’s Knife, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Williams is a wonderful author and fans of epic fantasy will love this magical, character-driven trilogy. If you haven’t picked up The Emperor’s Knife yet, I recommend you do so—especially if you’re a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s school of original magic systems and well-wrought new worlds.
Stephan received a review copy of Knife Sworn courtesy of Night Shade Books