THE EMPEROR’S KNIFE by MAZARKIS WILLIAMS
HB, 450 pages, Jo Fletcher Books
*Disclaimer* I won this book from JFB in a competition on Twitter. I was under no obligation to review it.
“The Emperor’s Knife”, first off, is a beautiful-looking book. Embossed hardback, with the obligatory “mysterious hooded fantasy figure” in the foreground, and an exotic city of dreaming spires in the background, ringed around with the pattern so central to the plot. Jacket design is by Ghost, and the front cover is credited to Archangel images, but I’d like to see the artist credited on the jacket, as it’s a stunning piece of work. But we try not to judge books by their covers round here, so on to the content.
The novel, Williams’ first, is set in what appears to be a fantastic version of the Middle East – there’s more than a spicy whiff of “Arabian Nights” about it, with its deserts, marbled palaces, harems, assassins, and scheming Grand Viziers (is there any other kind of Grand Vizier, I wonder?). Prince Sarmin is spared from death and imprisoned to provide a spare should anything befall his older brother, Emperor Beyon. He is trapped in a tower in the palace while a curse stalks the city, a mysterious pattern that marks the skin of the afflicted, killing the sufferers or turning them into mindless zombies. The Emperor has decreed that all who carry the marks of the pattern should be put to death. But now Beyon himself has fallen victim to the disease, and it’s time for Sarmin, the forgotten brother, to be pushed into the spotlight.
Williams’ ideas are original and fascinating; the Pattern, controlled by a mysterious Master, that stains itself on to the skin of its victims, mysterious cities rising and falling in the desert, mages bonded with an elemental spirit that will eventually destroy them. The ideas are rich, and the language that conveys them is lush and ripe, flowing like poetry, or patterns on skin. But…but…
The characters – courageous horsegirl Mesema who sees patterns in the grass, damaged Sarmin in his tower room, Eyul, the Emperor’s knife himself, are all drawn with broad and narrow strokes, but with the possible exception of Mesema, they’re hard to warm to, difficult to care about. I got the impression that Williams loves the beautiful world he has created more than the people that inhabit it. I didn’t find myself loving them, or mourning the ones that died. Williams makes repeated references to Settu, which seems to be a game rather like chess, played with tiles, and the characters feel more like carefully placed Settu tiles, positioned to serve the plot, than living breathing beings.
“The Emperor’s Knife” is skillfully executed, well set, beautifully written, but it lacks something at the heart of it and I’m not sure what. From the blurb on the flysheet, I wanted to love it, and I couldn’t. Sadly, while it’s a very easy book to admire, it’s a difficult one to love.
Check out an interview with Mazarkis Williams here, in which he talks about his influences, gaming, and hat preference.