The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams (Tower and Knife #1)

  • TITLE: The Emperor’s Knife (The Tower and the Knife #1)
  • AUTHOR: Mazarkis Williams
  • RELEASE DATE:  27th October, 2011 (UK)
  • PUBLISHER: Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus)

    The Emperor’s Knife, the first in a new trilogy (The Tower and the Knife), is Mazarkis Williams’ début novel—and one of the first offerings from brand new SFF imprint, Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus).

    I recently interviewed Mazarkis (interview link to be added when it goes live over at Fantasy Faction), before I’d finished up with the book, and found him to be a great guy who told a great story. It may sound obvious, but sometimes in the modern market, writers are so bogged down with what they “should” be writing, that sometimes the story suffers. Williams tells a story; nothing more, nothing less. And for it, The Emperor’s Knife is an engaging, interesting book that really whets the appetite for the following books in the series.

    The Emperor’s Knife offers a setting with a definite Persian/Arabian flavour—picture both Prince of Persia and Arabian Nights, then meet somewhere in the middle, and we’re there—which is both exotic, a break from the pseudo-European worlds that permeate fantasy, and exciting. We’re treated to tall towers, hot desert sands and nomads, glittering palaces, and an almighty Emperor, seen as the Son of Heaven. It’s a spectacular setting that stretches from the beautiful palace and the urban expanse it sits at the heart of, across the desert, and to flat plains where the grasses are tousled by the winds and the Windreaders dwell. It’s a beautifully set book, with a very clear sense of imagery: you are very aware of what everything looks like, and the level of immersion is unusually deep.

    For a début novel, this is utterly stunning. Williams weaves a deeply subtle and mysterious story with very little effort, and to the very last page, the plotting is tight, clean and strong. In fact, the book was an absolute pleasure to read: a pleasure to identify with each and every character, even in a small way; a pleasure to turn each page, constantly guessing at the nature of the villain and his “weapon”; a pleasure to reach the final page with a huge grin, eagerly seeking the rest of the story to see what happens to the characters you’ve come to know.

    Williams’ styling is different, cleaner, and definitely more simplistic in parts, than what I’m used to. My ideal fashion of prose is somewhere between Patrick Rothfuss and Elspeth Cooper, with Blake Charlton’s exposition thrown in. Williams’ style is close to none of these; it is entirely different. Whilst he does flirt with exposition in parts, the presentation is so different and integral to the narrative of his characters, that he comes exceptionally close to the idea of “show, not tell”, for a fantasy novel. Personally, someone tells me to “show, not tell” and I want to run a thousand miles in the opposite direction. It reminds me far too much of non-genre lecturers slowly killing the art of exposition, word by word. However, I enjoyed Williams’ style: it added to the mystery and effect of his setting, somehow.

    It’s an incredibly subtle novel, but one that compels you to keep turning the pages, right until the very end. The characters are interesting and likeable—Sarmin, trapped and kept from the world; Mesema, taken from her home by duty, and thrown into a tangled web of intrigue; Eyul, ever seeking forgiveness for the blood on his hands—and keep the reader’s attention rooted, even when there’s little action taking place.

    In fact, there isn’t much in the way of action, and this certainly isn’t a “swashbuckling” tale of scimitars. Instead, it’s a fantasy-mystery with one of the most subtle, yet ingenious plots I have seen in a long time. Perhaps what really makes The Emperor’s Knife succeed as a fantasy-mystery, is that is lacks the necessary components that make a classic mystery: there is no hint of a “whodunit”, and no real way of tracing events to their source in order to figure out the villain. Of course, throughout the story a list of “possible suspects” is built up, but it is a small one, and one of the characters was struck from the list immediately, following the same line of thought of “the butler did it”. Williams’ is too slick for the blindingly obvious. (I am fairly proud that I guessed the villain (of course I won’t reveal the identity here!), and prouder still that it was a single line that led me to guess just who was behind the Pattern.)

    As one of Jo Fletcher Books’ first offerings, The Emperor’s Knife has definitely sealed my initial opinion at least: this new imprint is one to look out for. Williams’ début was an anticipated read, for me, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. A fantastic book with a deep vein of emotion and thought about human nature beneath, The Emperor’s Knife strikes a chord because it is such a human story—yet an ultimately positive story.

    A brilliant, slick, and well-crafted début.



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