Premise: Beyon became emperor of Cerana and after his brothers were killed by the hands of the Emperor’s Knife, an assassin with the lone rights and ability to kill nobles as a part of his holy duty. At least that was what was supposed to have happened. Beyon’s brother Sarmin was secretly spared and locked away in a tower. The problem is that because of his seclusion Sarmin might be going mad and all these machinations are happening by the schemes of those closest to him.
There is a pattern in and through everything. In fact, there is a literal pattern of geometric designs being written on people’s skin, on the walls of Sarmin’s tower, and even in nature in the grasses and sands. It is a strange magic that is not natural, and the Pattern Master behind it has sinister intentions. If only anyone could figure out what those intentions are and who is behind the blue and red colored tattoo-like patterning being written on the Cerani people. When someone becomes a Carrier of the pattern, they become sick and die, or they can be controlled to do things against their will, even murder. It is Emperor Beyon’s law that anyone with the pattern be put to death at the hand of Eyul, the Emperor’s Knife, but when it is discovered that the markings have spread to the emperor himself, choices must be made.
A Felting girl, Mesema, of the steppes is being wedded to Sarmin to give an heir to Cerana that Beyon has been unable to give, but she discovers more about the pattern that others have missed. Mesema, Sarmin, Beyon, and Eyul must stand against the Pattern Master, but trusting anyone is a challenge, including each other. There are strange magics in Cerana, along with many competing gods and religions. Even the Emperor’s Knife contains some sort of magic, but is the Emperor’s Knife the man, Eyul, or is it the knife itself that contains the power?
Themes: Loyalties are ever-changing in the Cerani Empire. People have ambitions and bloodlines are important, but even those can’t always be relied upon. Even family relations mean little when it comes to keeping position and standing in the empire, between mother and son, brothers, cousins, and between husbands and wives.
Closely related to loyalty is the inherent politics in an epic fantasy novel between nations and royalty. When forming alliances with surrounding nations there is an exchange of power, both militarily and familial. We find these politics in the foreground, such as in the marriage deal between Mesema’s father and Cerana, and in the background in the motivations of each character.
We also see glimpses of romantic love and brotherly love, and of the intimacy of real relationships with people. People come and go in our lives but certain relationships stay with us for a lifetime, even after those people are long gone. This happens in The Emperor’s Knife in the form of distance and death, and the longing for those loved ones can be felt in every instance.
Pros: There are so many characters in The Emperor’s Knife that are complex and interesting with dark pasts and internal struggles that make them each real and human. I was impressed with the strong female characters in a male-dominated world that were not necessarily feminist but also didn’t come across as weak-willed. I appreciated the use of romantic and sexual relationships done in a subtle and intimate way that didn’t come across as crass or perverted. The matter-of-fact expression of killing and death carried with it a sense of cost and loss that keeps it far away from being gratuitous. The magic systems of both the pattern and the elemental magics are interesting enough to set this book apart from most others right off the bat.
Cons: The depth of the pattern magic system seemed much less than that given of the elemental spirit magic of the mages from the Tower. Perhaps the author is saving more of this for later books, but I wish more explanation was given into the back story of how the pattern works or at least its implications. Is it connected to blood and sacrifice as it seems to imply? This is less of a con than implied since I liked the magic structure even in the amount that was revealed to us. One thing that might be confusing to some American readers is the use of some British English spellings, such as organise, waggon, and colour, but this is something that is easy to read over and forget.
Recommendations: The Emperor’s Knife has a Middle Eastern style to it that is refreshing, with a magic system that is intriguing yet seems so much deeper than the author showed us in this first book. Replete with political intrigue and mystery, The Emperor’s Knife is a story I will remember and that will keep me thinking after the book is closed. By the end of the story I was still wondering who to trust. I only wish I could pick up book two right now and keep reading. This is a strong and daring undertaking of a debut novel from Mazarkis Williams.