There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike. Geometric patterns spread across the skin, until you die in agony, or become a Carrier, doing the bidding of an evil intelligence, the Pattern Master. Anyone showing the tell-tale marks is put to death; that is Emperor Beyon's law... but now the pattern is running over the Emperor's own arms.
His body servants have been executed, he ignores his wives, but he is doomed, for soon the pattern will reach his face. While Beyon's agents scour the land for a cure, Sarmin, the Emperor's only surviving brother, awaits his bride, Mesema, a windreader from the northern plains. Unused to the Imperial Court's stifling protocols and deadly intrigues, Mesema has no one to turn to but an ageing imperial assassin, the Emperor's Knife. As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence, the invincible Pattern Master appears from the deep desert. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who saw a path in a pattern once, among the waving grasses - a path that just might save them all!
I dug right into this book without taking note that it was the first in a trilogy and I have to say first of all that it worked very well as a stand alone. I can see the story continuing I suppose, but for readers hesitant to jump into a multi-part saga you honestly wouldn't know it by the way this reads and ends.
The story follows Eyul- the emperor's knife he is called, or simply an assassin, Mesema- a young girl from the grasslands being brought into the city for an arranged marriage, Tuvaini- the emperor's advisor, the Emperor Beyon and his brother Sarmin- long locked away in secret, as they work together or against one another for the good of the Empire.
[spoiler-ish warning] The patterns appearing on people are treated as a curse or disease, the carriers put to death as a mercy; but as the story plays out it is plain to see that there is magic at work in the patterned individuals. They operate almost as a hive mind and eventually seem steered by some individual. This pattern beginning to appear on the emperor has caused a great deal of alarm in some of the inner circle aware of it and forces their hands to action, fearing the collapse of the royal line. Meanwhile, Tuvaini plays a game of politics and intrigue as he works behind the scenes to advance his own ideas of what is best for the empire, which may not be what is best for the Emperor. Part of the game he plays is what ultimately sets things in motion giving Sarmin a new path outside of spending his life locked away and sends the assassin Eyul across the desert on a mission for the empire, both events ultimately changing the course of the story. [end-ish of spoilers]
Williams does a great job of peeling back layer upon layer of the story as it moves forward instead of laying it all on your lap at once to sort out. Both the pattern, the main adversary and much of the scheming are left a mystery to the reader, only finding out along with the characters. Sometimes it seemed like the book had to be ending shortly even though I was part way through, only to find a new piece of the puzzle presented. I also enjoyed the gray area played with of good and evil- which is where most of the story occurred. Things were not always about right and wrong or good and evil, but what was best for the empire or what needed to be done. There were definitely times where the blacks and whites reared their heads, but most of the players were doing what they believed was the right thing.
I thought Eyul- the assassin, and Sarmin- the emperor's brother, had some of the best character changing moments, which is probably appropriate once the book plays out. The author does a good job of showing how these two characters, after spending their lives locked in the same mentality, can push forward from big experiences. The other characters were all strong as well and played extremely important roles in the story so I don't want to short sell any of them, I simply found Sarmin and Eyul the most interesting during this plot.
The only real issue I can point out with the story was how a few moments seemed tied together with coincidence. All the characters that drove the story weaved in and out of each others individual story lines and though most made sense to me a few seemed almost too conveniently times and places. It wasn't enough to completely unravel the plot, just enough to make me pull out of the story for a second or two in wonder.
As for the world of The Emperor's Knife, it is probably most closely pictured with that of an Arabian middle ages setting. The desert, some of the names and customs all created that atmosphere. The Cerani Empire the emporer controls is described as the most powerful kingdom in the land and it definitely feels that way in the story. The scheming and threats presented in this book make the most sense for a kingdom of that power.
For the magic curious: there are two types of magic used in the story, the pattern being one and elemental magic the other. Though the elemental magic is the common magic for the kingdom, the pattern seen as a curse; it is the other way around in what is common for the story. There are only a couple elemental mages appearing in the story and neither have huge roles in relation to the main characters. I thought the idea behind the elemental magic was great and there were some other interesting developments with those mages I'll leave to the book. Pattern magic was what we saw the most of because it was central to the plot. It was a great concept and though it was explained enough for this story I can see where there is more left to tell in additional books.
This is the first novel by Mazarkis Williams, though it doesn't feel like it. I would highly recommend checking it out when it hits shelves on December 6th. It's the first in a trilogy, but stands easily on its own. It has all the elements of a dark fantasy that give a story that heavy realism without going over the edge being so dark that that it starts losing sight of that realism again.