Thursday, 15 August 2013

Review: Mazarkis Williams, The Emperor's Knife (Jo Fletcher Books, 2011)

Full disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author for review – but that’s not really news, as that’s true of most books reviewed on here and it carries absolutely no guarantee of anything other than an honest review. Even fuller disclosure: the author sent me a lovely, signed hardback edition, which has lingered on my to-review pile for far longer than I care to admit. I’m slightly embarrassed by how long it has taken me to post this.

Anyway… continuing in the anecdotal mode for a moment… why did I decide to review The Emperor’s Knife at all? The book is the first in a series – the Tower and Knife trilogy – which is (roughly speaking) high fantasy. I usually don’t read high or epic fantasy, preferring urban fantasy, sci fi and horror, but I like having the opportunity to dip my toe into other genres every once in a while. The synopsis of the book looked really intriguing, so I thought, if I’m going to read a high fantasy book, why not make it that one?

There was another big attraction with The Emperor’s Knife, and one that is a little unusual. I was attracted by the publisher. Williams’s novel is published by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus. I must admit, I haven’t yet found a book published by Quercus that I don’t like, and three of my absolute favourite authors of recent years (Cat Clarke, Tom Fletcher and Peter May are all published by them. In fact, Quercus are the only publisher whose books I will buy for the name of the publisher alone. So, despite knowing nothing about Mazarkis Williams, I was already inclined to give The Emperor’s Knife a go.

So… I’ll start talking about the book now, shall I?

The Emperor’s Knife is a fantasy novel set in a Middle Eastern-ish, Arabian Nights-sort-of world of emperors, viziers, magic and intrigue. There are a number of interwoven plots circling around a ‘plague’ at the heart of the Cerani Empire. A mysterious ailment is spreading through the empire, marking ‘carriers’ with a strange pattern – both physically and psychologically – and linking them to something ‘greater’, something unknown. At the book’s opening, it is made clear that the emperor (Beyon) is having ‘carriers’ put to death, but also that he himself is at risk of attack from those afflicted.

Parallel to the story of the empire’s struggle with the pattern is the story of Sarmin, Beyon’s brother. The last surviving brother of the emperor (the others having been killed in childhood to prevent any challenges to the throne), Sarmin lives in a hidden room in the palace, almost entirely ignored by the rest of the court. As Sarmin’s story progresses, his relationship to the pattern develops and the reader realizes he will play a much larger role in the future of the empire than his ‘forgotten’ status at first suggests.

Sarmin and Beyon’s mother, the ‘Empire Mother’ Nessaket has arranged for her ‘hidden’ son to marry. As such, a young ‘Felt’ woman, Mesema is being brought to the court as the prince’s bride. Mesema must struggle with both homesickness and a fear of the unknown, as well as with the physical dangers her journey entails. She is guided – at least at first – by Banreh, one of her countrymen, who attempts to teach her enough of the Cerantic language and imperial culture to get by in her new home. Like Sarmin, Mesema is draw into the web of the ‘pattern-master’. Mesema’s travels to the imperial court are fraught with danger, but also filled with a growing understanding of what is happening around her.

Finally, there’s Eyul, bearer of the eponymous Knife. Eyul is the imperial assassin, with long-standing and unshakeable loyalty to the throne. At the book’s opening, Eyul is sent out into the desert lands around Cerani to discover the true meaning of the pattern and to find a way to reverse the damage it is doing. On his way, he meets Amalya (a mage) with whom he forms a bond that causes Eyul to question some of his life’s mission (to an extent, anyway).

If this sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. The scope of Williams’s novel is definitely ‘epic’. The world-building of the novel is detailed and there is a huge cast of characters, each of which have a different connection and affiliation within the world of the Cerani empire. Admittedly, this means that The Emperor’s Knife is not the sort of book you dive into and plough on through. I found the first couple of chapters quite a slow read (though I don’t mean this as a criticism), as they required my full attention. This is not a book for skim-reading.

The world itself also requires concentration for total immersion in it. While some aspects of the narrative landscape of The Emperor’s Knife might be considered ‘stock’ fantasy elements – there’s a harem of wives, for instance, and a scheming mother-figure – making the world of Emperor’s Knife seem, at times, rather familiar, there is something a little off-key about the setting, something a little unsettling. Again, this isn’t a criticism – the unsettling, off-key quality is a real strength of Williams’s writing. There is a lightness of touch to descriptions and exposition (which is used sparingly) that was a pleasure to read.

For me, the most compelling aspect of The Emperor’s Knife was the characterization. As I’ve said, there are a lot of characters, and some had more life about them than others. I’ll admit, I didn’t find all the characters engaging (Nessaket and her lover Tuvaini didn’t grab me particularly), but others fascinated me. I enjoyed the interaction between Eyul and Amalya in the earlier sections of the book – these two characters were so restricted by their ‘roles’ in the world that their dialogue was stilted and their mannerisms formal, so it was interesting to see their relationship develop and deepen within such rigid constraints.

However, the highlight of the book for me was Mesema’s interactions with the emperor Beyon – the brother of her intended husband. In the early chapters, I was fully convinced that I was going to hate Beyon. But as the story progressed and more was revealed about this character (again, Williams does this with a light touch, relying on implication and nuance more than explanation), I became really taken with him. I’d go as far as to say he was my favourite character. Mesema is the ‘feisty’ outsider – which, again, could be considered a stock element – but her interactions with Beyon were unexpected and engaging. Much of this surprised me, which is something I like in novel.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that the pacing is rather inconsistent. I found some chapters dragged a little, while others flew by. I rattled through the final section of the book, from the point where the storylines converged, not wanting to put it down. However, some of the earlier chapters (mostly the sections with the journey through the desert) seem a little pedestrian in comparison.

The thing that intrigued me most from the synopsis of The Emperor’s Knife was the pattern ‘plague’. The book’s blurb is vague about the nature of this ailment, and I’m going to be too. The nature of the pattern is revealed in a winding, circuitous way, and I don’t want to spoil the experience of reading the book and following the path to understanding. All I will say is that I found the resolution (and I guess you could call it the reveal) really satisfying, and well worth following the threads through the labyrinthine narrative to reach the conclusion.

I’m curious to know where the series will go. The Emperor’s Knife could easily have been a standalone novel, but it is apparently part of a trilogy. There’s no cliffhanger as such at the end, so no obvious signposts to what will come in the second book. The (very brief) advert at the back of the book only promises that the story of (some of) the characters will continue – but no real hint as to where!

Overall, then, I recommend The Emperor’s Knife. If detailed, complex worlds and an extensive cast of characters is your thing, then I’m sure you will lose yourself in this novel. (Though, if you like your fantasy brash, punchy and filled with trolls, wizards and grizzled warriors, this probably isn’t the ideal read for you.) As I said at the beginning of the review, this type of fantasy is not my usual genre of choice, but Williams is an accomplished writer and a good storyteller, and, at the end of the day, that’s far more important to me than genre labels.

So, in summary, I still haven’t found a Quercus book I don’t like.

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