In reviews, videogames are often rated on a variety of separate factors, like “Graphics” or “Replayability.” Book reviews happily tend not to divide things up so discretely, which is a problem for The Emperor’s Knife. If its various components like premise, setting, and plot are taken on their own, the book is an exciting debut for a new fantasy series. But as a whole, it’s a disjointed mess, albeit one with potential.
The Emperor’s Knife has two premises capable of sustaining a strong fantasy novel. It’s set in an Ottoman Empire facsimile called the Cerani Empire, and it uses the era’s politics and history for palace intrigue and character development. The tradition of an heir’s brothers being murdered when he ascends to the throne brings together the main characters: Sarmin, a younger brother of the new emperor, is imprisoned for years instead of being murdered, so he can be a potential heir, which becomes more important when it becomes clear that the current emperor can’t have children. An ambitious general, realizing this, arranges a marriage for Sarmin to the daughter of a foreign leader, Mesema. Sarmin also doesn’t blame his brother for murdering their siblings, focusing instead on the “Emperor’s Knife,” the assassin who did the deed, and is himself caught up in the intrigue by a treacherous vizier. (Is there any other kind?)
Authors like Guy Gavriel Kay have used this kind of humanized, historical fantasy to create wonderful stories, but it’s also joined by a more typical fantasy premise: a “sickness” of skin patterns has appeared throughout the empire. The patterns eventually convert their hosts into the puppets of an unknown Pattern Master, and the bulk of the book is spent on the main characters’ journey to understand the magical patterns and their reason for being.
With so much going on, there isn’t room for the characters to develop and hold the eventful plot together. Only Mesema has three dimensions, as she has the space to have internal and external conversations to understand her new lot in life. As for the rest, it’s setpiece after setpiece; the assassin and a mage traverse a haunted city, the vizier and the general play a board game that doubles as a metaphor for their machinations; the prince has confusing dreams/flashbacks as he develops magical abilities.
Some of the setpieces are fascinating, but too many are confusing, and almost all lack drive beyond simply seeing what happens next. First-time author Mazarkis Williams has done a fine job of creating a great fantasy world, complete with working rules for magic and an underutilized setting. But while great fantasy worlds sometimes house great stories, good premises don’t always work that way, as The Emperor’s Knife frustratingly demonstrates.