The Emperor’s Knife is Mazarkis Williams’ stunning debut and the first book in the Tower and Knife series. This amazing tale of magic and political scheming is published by new UK publisher Jo Fletcher in October and will be published in the US on December 1st by Night Shade Books.
A work of high fantasy in every way, The Emperor’s Knife takes us to the Cerani Empire—an empire that’s dying from the inside out. A disease, or perhaps an old magic long lost, is threatening the Cerani. Those that get mysteriously “marked” will either die or become Carriers—human vessels for some divine power to use as he pleases. This has been going on for decades, but now the Emperor, Beyon, is marked… and that’s a serious problem.
The Emperor’s Knife follows the tales of Sarmin, the brother and only heir of the emperor, who was locked up in a tower during the succession years ago, and Eyul, the Emperor’s Knife, appointed assassin by the emperor and the only one allowed to slay royals by using his magical knife. We also follow Tuvaini, a noble trying to scheme his way to the throne, and Mesema, a young foreign girl who is taken to Nooria, the empire’s capital, to marry Sarmin against her will.
As their story unfolds and perspectives seamlessly overlap, it becomes clear that unlike other high fantasy authors, Williams’ talent is in not fleshing out his world and magic. Yes, you read that right: Williams tends to keep a lot of open threads. While it becomes clear from the start that there is a lot to this Arabian-influenced desert world, we only see little pieces of it as they become relevant to the story. Furthermore, there are two very original magic systems in The Emperor’s Knife, but both keep an air of mystique. This never reaches the point of confusion, however. A reader is simply eased into the story by the characters that drive it.
Magic, mystique, and ambiguity
More than anything, The Emperor’s Knife reminded me of works by Brandon Sanderson like Elantris, Warbreaker, and Mistborn. Like those stories, this is a tale of unlikely and sometimes naive people, thrust into a situation of political schemes where they have to save the world by solving a magical mystery. While Sanderson’s novels often have a magician protagonist who is slowly educated in the ways of the magic system, Williams’ protagonists are regular folk, having to deal with an entirely alien magic, the origins of which remain unknown for the better part of The Emperor’s Knife. Their fumbling around with magic they are unfamiliar with only adds to the air of mystique in this novel.
Unlike the characters in Sanderson’s debut, however, Williams’ characters are among the most intriguing in the epic fantasy genre. These are no flat goodie-two-shoes but morally ambiguous protagonists, each with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. What’s more, these characters truly develop. For example, Eyul, the Emperor’s Knife, was chosen for his blind loyalty, but throughout the story, he faces situations in which he is forced to make his own decisions. In these events, and through dialogue, he showcases the ability to reflect upon his choices and a wish to better himself. The development of this character and many others alike felt real and genuine.
A game of chess
The Emperor’s Knife isn’t, however, a page turner. While the story always intrigues and entertains, the movement of characters—it often feels like they are chess pieces on Williams’ board—to get them in position for the ending grew a bit dull and tedious in the middle part of the book. While slow, these movements definitely seemed necessary for the story to continue. I just wish Williams would have given each movement a little more attention. For example, there were multi-day breaks between scenes, and the events during those days are never explained and don’t make much sense. The resulting story is still a good one, though, and this movement of chess pieces adds to the intelligence of The Emperor’s Knife. Don’t expect a thriller, but rather a real, grown-up and utterly, brilliantly well-wrought epic fantasy.
Why should you read this book?
The Emperor’s Knife has everything a fan of epic and high fantasy may need. It has mystery, intrigue, amazing characters both to love and to hate, and original magic systems. Fans of Brandon Sanderson or Robert Jordan will love this, but it also holds similarities to talented authors like Stephen Deas and Mark Lawrence. Beyond that, the large amount of open threads promises a great deal for future installments. Mazarkis Williams is a debuting author to keep an eye on.
Stephan received a review copy courtesy of Night Shade Books