The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams

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Publication date – November 29, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike, marking each victim with a fragment of a greater pattern. Anyone showing the marks is put to death. That is Emperor Beyon’s law . . .

But now the pattern is reaching closer to the palace than ever before. In a hidden room, a forgotten prince has grown from child to man, and as the empire sickens, Sarmin, the emperor’s only surviving brother, is remembered. He awaits the bride his mother has chosen: a chieftain’s daughter from the northern plains.

Mesema travels from her homeland, an offering for the empire’s favour. She is a Windreader, used to riding free across the grasslands, not posing and primping in rare silks. She finds the Imperial Court’s protocols stifling, but she doesn’t take long to realise the politicking and intrigues are not a game, but deadly earnest.

Eyul is burdened both by years and by the horrors he has carried out in service to the throne. At his emperor’s command he bears the emperor’s Knife to the desert in search of a cure for the pattern-markings.

As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence and rebellion, the enemy moves toward victory. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who once saw a path through a pattern, among the waving grasses.

Thoughts: Steeped in classic middle-eastern society influence, Mazarkis Williams’s debut novel is a wonderful addition to my shelves. More and more I seem to be coming across books that make me go, “Wait, this is the author’s first book?” simply because it can be hard to believe that so much talent has only just arrived on the scene. This was my impression with The Emperor’s Knife.

The plot is a complex one, full of politics at once deep and twisted and yet still comprehensible without having to twist your mind around multi-layered deceptions. A disease has infected Cerana, showing itself in mysterious patterns upon the skin of the infected. Emperor Beyon tries to hide that he has the pattern on him. Eyul, charged with being the emperor’s assassin, is thrown into a quest to find the source of the pattern, and comes closer to it than he realizes. Sarmin, Beyon’s sole remaining brother, is either mad or incredibly insightful, or both, and holds the key to the pattern in his mind. Mesema, a barbarian girlintended for a man she has never met, follows duty to places she never expected it to lead her. And that just scratches the surface of the richly-developed cast of characters contained within the pages of The Emperor’s Knife. Williams has great skill at writing well-rounded and realistic characters. Each have their place on the board of destiny, a concept that features quite promimently within the book itself.

I felt particular attachment to Sarmin and Mesema. While a large portion of the book centres around Eyul (and with good reason, as he’s integral to the plot), I was more interested in reading the sections from their viewpoints. Sarmin’s views of the world and people were intriguing and insightful, and I found Mesema’s challenge to adjust to the new culture she found herself thrust into was something very relatable. She was a young women trying to find herself while finding the world, and while she was hot-headed and sometimes flighty with her emotions, I liked seeing that she was deep enough to also have more of a level-head when needed. It would have been very easy for her to develop more as a caricature than a well-developed character, but happily, that didn’t happen.

Williams shows good skill with world-building, too. It’s clear that a great amount of time was put into this novel, with all its detail and subtleties. There’s no doubt that a talented hand guides this novel, and I was pleased to see it as I turned the pages.

However, no book is ever perfect, and for all its strengths, occasionally I did find myself a little lost. It wasn’t so much that essential details were omitted or forgotten so much that sometimes things worked a little too subtly to be picked up on. Characters reveal their hands in ways that sometimes seem counter to what the reader has come to think of them as, and it was a little bit disconcerting.

The ending, too, felt somewhat hurried. It reminded me a lot, actually, of Mercedes Lackey’s novels, where 95% of the book is set-up for a very quick confrontation at the end, and while that can work, it does lead to the book’s conclusion feeling rushed and unsatisfying.

Regardless, though, I greatly enjoyed reading The Emperor’s Knife, and while I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in the sequel (there were questions left unanswered at the end, but it wasn’t really cliff-hanger), I look forward to the day I can pick up the next book and continue with the adventure. This book leaves me hands highly recommended for fans of fantasy, especially those who crave a different setting than the standard “based on medieval Europe.”

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

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