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The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams
Book Name: The Emperor's Knife
Author: Mazarkis Williams
Publisher(s): Jo Fletcher Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: November 29, 2011

Never judge a book by its cover…that’s the rule, right? I kinda broke it on this occasion. Yes, I know, I am a respected (?) reviewer of fantasy literature and shouldn’t let such things draw me any longer, but damn, this is a beautiful, beautiful book! Yes, there is that now very, very common hooded man on the cover, but also, there is a beautiful city in the distance and these two are washed over with a kind of midnight blue. Most impressively, there are some beautiful, almost tribal type patterns that are embossed on top of the hardback novel in a kind of vinyl (you will find out the relevance to these a little bit later in the review).

Now, I don’t usually spend this long talking about things that are not printed upon the pages within a novel, because essentially, this review belongs to the author, Mazarkis Williams. However, I’d like to say a few words about the people who have brought this book to market, because I think it is very, very important that people recognise and take notice of how this book has come to be. A name for you: Jo Fletcher. For those of you who don’t know Jo, she is one of the most respected speculative science-fiction editors in this country. She has been linked with a number of authors and publishing companies over the years, Gollancz and Pan for example, as well as authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Sir Terry Pratchett, Gene Wolfe, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Donaldson and more recently the likes of Charlaine Harris and Andrzej Sapkowski.

Those who know of Jo Fletcher, quite literally punched the air when in 2011 it was announced that she would be joining Quercus Books to start her own imprint, quite simply named, Jo Fletcher Books. Because their label is so open to submissions and Jo, in her own words has such a wonderfully eclectic taste in all areas of fiction, fantasy, and horror – we are set to see some really, really exciting titles coming from this imprint over the next few years. For more information, visit their website here.

Now, I apologise for going off on a tangent there – back to the review of this book.

The Emperor’s Knife is a wonderfully difficult book to describe. It is by no means your typical fantasy novel. Amongst the Cerani Empire there is a disease that is spreading throughout the inhabitants. It seems that anyone can be infected at any time and there is no known way to prevent it from taking hold of you. How it is caught isn’t known either, it doesn’t appear that direct expose is the cause (i.e. it is not a virus), all that is known is that once it manifests as a small mark on your skin, it will quickly get worse. Within a short amount of time, the mark will grow from simply a mark and spread across your body as a blue, vein-like pattern. Certainly, there seems an intelligence to it. Once the pattern has taken your body, you seem to lose your own mind and your actions seem to become a part of the overall pattern’s conscience. I don’t think I will am spoiling things to reveal that it becomes apparent fairly early-on that there is some kind of Pattern Master controlling those who display the marks of the pattern.

The only thing that keeps the kingdom calm and under control is the powerful ruler, Emperor Beyon. However, when Beyon himself is revealed to have the prominent patterns covering almost the entirety of his body, it comes down to a number of the highest ranked people in court to keep the fact that the Emperor is soon to die, or perhaps even worse, fall under the Pattern Master power a secret. Without an heir, Beyon’s followers each have their own ideas as to who should rule once he falls. His mother believes that the lost prince Sarmin, who has been locked away in a tower in order to ensure he never forcibly tried to take power should be given the role. Others tell her they agree, but once her back is turner, can they really be trusted not to seize power for themselves?

A number of plans are set in motion and the beauty of the book is that we never quite know who is being honest and how it is playing with us. We meet a number of characters that are all pawns in this game including, Medema, a type of seer from a far away country who has been put forward to become queen should Sarmin be allowed onto the throne. Her abilities have given her clues as to the Pattern Masters location, but can she grasp their meaning in time? We also meet Eyul, who is the Emperor’s Knife, an assassin, who actually turns out to be a relatively good guy. He goes on a journey to find a cure for Beyon, a journey that will reveal even deeper plots and show even more powers looking to take control of Cerani and indeed even beyond.

It is certainly a fantasy novel to get excited about, there is a good amount here that won’t feel familiar and the plot will keep you guessing until the very end. For me, the characters are the most enjoyable aspect of the novel. Sarmin, the Emperor’s brother that has been locked away is a fantastically dark, manic and volatile personality that we never quite work out. He grows extensively throughout the novel, even trapped within his dark, isolated room and this never interest in him and interaction in him changes him dramatically. These changes are very, very nicely done and I think readers will have a pleasant struggle trying to decide whether to route for Sarmin or one of the other characters. This is due to the author’s purposeful ambiguity in regards to who is good and who is evil. Perhaps that is what is the biggest draw of this novel, because other than A Game of Thrones, there aren’t many novels in our genre that keep you guessing as to the characters real intentions.

A lot of other reviewers have commented on the setting being the highlight of this novel. This is because the setting isn’t your general Arthurian age ‘knights’ and ‘swords’ type location. Instead, it feels more Asian, maybe even Egyptian. We see a lot of statues, tapestries, beautiful buildings and even a dessert. I have to say though, for me, I think perhaps this was the one weakness of the novel. The setting for me never felt quite vivid and at times I lost where I was. Was I in a city, was I in a dessert, was I in a grassy area, was I in an extravagant building or a run down one? I’m not sure why I felt this, because Mazarkis is a wonderful, wonderful writer. His prose are some of the most beautiful I have experienced:

The Carrier made no move other than to open his eyes, and Eyul almost rolled clear at the sight of his fixed and unfocused pupils. Those eyes belonged on a corpse, but the body below him continued to struggle, lifting a free arm towards Eyul’s face – an arm twined with blue lines, half-moons and circles. Plague marks. Eyul pushed it back. They lay leg to leg, arm to
arm, intimate as lovers.


My inability to connect and realise the setting though is the one weak point in a great book. Overall, the exposition isn’t bad at all – the magic systems for example are very well explained. The Mages seem to harness within them two entities. Their human selves and an elemental who provides them with their powers. It is difficult to discuss these elementals without some major spoilers, but the mages will play an increasingly large role as the book goes on. The Pattern Master himself will keep you guessing as well – why is he taking control of people, what is his overall plan, who or what is he, is there a cure? In a way, it feels familiar to The Forged from Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. You get that horrible feeling when you hear about these diseases that take over your body. Imagination your body being used against your will by another human being to carry out terrible and in the context of the story, treasonous acts – it’s quite a creepy thought.

When we consider this is a debut novel, I don’t think we can ask for a huge amount more. The whole novel is fairly short, I think perhaps a few more words added in to give a stronger feeling of where we are and when would ‘complete’ it for me, but, perhaps the complex story line and pace of the book requires it to be the length it is. With The Emperor’s Knife, Mazarkis Williams has added his name to the very, very strong debutees we have had in 2011 (Douglas Hulick, Mark Lawrence and Elspeth Cooper leading the way for example). I think though, comparing this novel to anything else is very, very difficult and this is perhaps what makes The Emperor’s Knife a must read – it’s fresh, it’s exciting and the Tower and Knife Trilogy looks set to get even better!



  1. […] Read on for a fantastic review of the Emperor’s Knife by Marc Aplin over at […]

  2. Jezrien says:

    Great review. I look forward to reading this. I’d heard about it, but I had put it into the long list of ‘to buy’ pile. But now I may have to bump it up the ‘ to read’ pile and buy it.

  3. j9nightelf says:

    *runs to put it on my wish list*


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