PROS: Vivid non-standard fantasy setting; well drawn characters; beautiful language.
CONS: Plotting in the denouement feels a bit abrupt; worldbuilding is somewhat slight; occasional unclear, esoteric scenes.
VERDICT: An ambitious, sophisticated and thoughtful debut novel that belies its cover.
Sometimes you can be fooled by a book’s cover.
Take a look at the cover of the debut novel from Mazarkis Williams, The Emperor’s Knife. To first impressions, knowing nothing about the book, with that cover and that title one might be led to think this is a Middle-eastern version of the Jon Sprunk’s Shadow series, or perhaps a riff on Peter V. Brett or Brent Weeks. An assassin goes carving a bloody path through the desert sands, right? Riding in blood to Samarkand?
Don’t be fooled. The author has a completely different agenda.
Admittedly, The Emperor’s Knife ostensibly is partly about the titular character, Ezul. He is an assassin with a dispensation that allows him to spill royal blood. Given how bloody changes in Emperors can be in the Cerani Empire, with siblings’ lives harvested like wheat, this is an important role for him to play. More than a decade ago, in fact, he killed all of the current Emperor’s siblings, save one. There are definite notes of regret and looking backward in the aging assassin, a tool that realizes he is near the end of his useful lifespan.
Ezul is not the only major character, though, even if he (or more accurately his weapon) gets the top billing. Along with him in the trio of protagonists are Sarmin and Masema. The former is the aforementioned surviving sibling of the Emperor, locked in a single room in a tower his entire life. The latter is a outlander girl that the Queen Mother has schemed to bring to the palace as a bride for her son the imprisoned Prince. For you see, the mighty Cerani Empire faces a threat, a strange magical Pattern (no not the Zelazny kind) that is showing up on the bodies of the citizens of the Empire. A pattern that spreads from carrier to carrier, and seemingly takes control of those afflicted. A pattern being employed by an unseen Pattern Master. And, unknown but only to a few, the Emperor has signs of the Pattern on him as well…
In a recent SFF audio podcast, Jesse Willis and company discussed metaphors in science fiction and fantasy. During that discussion, the guests discussed the idea that in science fiction and fantasy, some metaphors used are familiar to the characters and their world, but we have to work the metaphor from scratch, as if learning a foreign language. In The Emperor’s Knife, the author uses metaphors from an imaginary tile-laying game, Settu, that has aspects of Stratego, Othello and dominoes. The characters in the novel play the game and think about things in terms of the game. It’s a testament to the writing that this metaphor works, and works rather well for the reader. The game is, even more intriguingly, a metaphor for the plotting of the novel. Long, slow and careful buildup that is punctuated by an almost too-abrupt denouement.
I think we’re going to need a word. While words do define and sometimes limit things, words also help illuminate aspects of genre. There has been a growing subgenre of fantasy in the last year or so; fantasy that is not Western European-based, but rather taps into motifs, settings, and matter that are instead based on the “center of the Eurasian continent”. Heartland Theory locales, to use the historian Halford Mackinder’s term. Or perhaps, a little more inaccurately but more familiarly, I am talking about fantasy that derives from cultures connected to the Silk Road and the steppe. The Blackdog by K.V. Johansen, Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Cresent Moon, The Desert of Souls from Howard Andrew Jones, The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh by Bradley Beaulieu…and more that I’ve heard about and not yet read from Amanda Downum, Elizabeth Bear and others. These books, intentionally or not, appear to be a reaction to the commonality of Western European based locales, and collectively have no term of their own.
Add The Emperor’s Knife to the collection of books in this subgenre of “Silk Road Fantasy”. From the desert feel of the Cerani Empire, up to the steppes that Mesema come from, the elemental magic system, the intrigues of the royal palace and more all feel similar to the aforementioned books. Hints of things outside the map give the feel of a larger world impinging on this one.
Besides imaginary games that help form the skeleton of the intricate plot, the mindset of the characters and the Silk Road Fantasy setting, there is much to like in The Emperor’s Knife. That plotting is ornate and complex; it takes a careful reader to tease out the tangle of motivations and actions of the characters, and that’s before the real antagonist erupts into full flower.
The characters are well drawn and interesting, even as they transcend the archetypes. A prince locked in a tower, an aging assassin, and a horsewoman are not new in the broad strokes of the nature of their characters, its true, but the characters have good arcs and development. Around them are a set of major and minor non-point-of-view characters that illuminate the intrigues of a royal court, a slice of life on the steppes and more. From Govnan the wizard, to Tuvaini the scheming court vizier, to the Emperor himself, the author does well in bringing them to life. In good order, they reflect and refract the struggles and developments of Masema, Sarmin and Eyul, while having lives of their own. Having been thinking hard about dowager empresses lately, I particularly liked the deft characterization of Nessaket, the mother of the Emperor.
What is less successful? The worldbuilding, while good in the touches we get, does seem slight at times, sketched and hinted at rather than fully fleshed. I would have liked to know much more about the elemental magic system, for instance. While I appreciated the economy of words in the novel and its relative brevity, I sometimes think that the author was a little too austere in parceling out the worldbuilding. Additionally, the esoteric scenes and elements in the book are sometimes more confusing and opaque than anything else. I briefly and badly misunderstood one of these scenes for a plot point, and had to go back to reground myself as to the true sense of what was happening with the complex plot.
Overall, though, I think that The Emperor’s Knife is a good example of this Silk Road Fantasy subgenre, and I look forward to more set in this world.
Again, don’t be fooled by the cover. The Emperor’s Knife, far from being a bloody swath of a book, has an ornate and ambitious plotting, a complex and complicated world that we’ve only started to see, and a set of characters with a large task still in front of them, growing and changing along the way. I do want to see more of the world, and more of the characters. But maybe, a more appropriate cover for the second book might be a good idea. Just a suggestion.