The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams

There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike, marking each victim with a fragment of a greater pattern. Anyone showing the marks is put to death. That is Emperor Beyon’s law . . .

But now the pattern is reaching closer to the palace than ever before. In a hidden room, a forgotten prince has grown from child to man, and as the empire sickens, Sarmin, the emperor’s only surviving brother, is remembered. He awaits the bride his mother has chosen: a chieftain’s daughter from the northern plains.

Mesema travels from her homeland, an offering for the empire’s favour. She is a Windreader, used to riding free across the grasslands, not posing and primping in rare silks. She finds the Imperial Court’s protocols stifling, but she doesn’t take long to realise the politicking and intrigues are not a game, but deadly earnest.

Eyul is burdened both by years and by the horrors he has carried out in service to the throne. At his emperor’s command he bears the emperor’s Knife to the desert in search of a cure for the pattern-markings.

As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence and rebellion, the enemy moves toward victory. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who once saw a path through a pattern, among the waving grasses.

Mazarkis Williams pieces together a complex mosaic of personality and ambition in a brilliant work of magic and mystery set in a richly imagined world, the first book in a fantastic new series.

There’s been a lot of praise for Mazarkis Williams debut novel The Emperor’s Knife. It is a great book filled with political intrigue and unexpected turns told by Willams’s wonderful prose.

The book is mostly told from the viewpoint of the following three characters. Eyul, an elderly assassin working for the Cerani Empire and the only one with the weapon to spill royal blood; Sarmin, a slightly mad prince who has been locked away ever since his brother has ascended the throne and Mesema, a girl from the Northern tribes who is on her way to marry the mad prince.

At the heart of it all, a disease known as the Pattern is spreading across the empire. People contracted with the Pattern lose their self identity and become tools of the Puppet Master. The general gist is that the Emperor is also a carrier of the Pattern and there are other parties who want to take advantage of this and put themselves in power. This brief summary doesn’t do the book justice because there is so much more going on beneath it all and Williams managed to fit everything together within 300 or so pages.

It is a great story but at the same time I have trouble enjoying it as much as others. For one, no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t connect with the characters. I understand Williams intended to leave his characters and their actions ambiguous and I am fine with that. It’s just that jumping between three of these type of characters left me unsure as to who I should be routing for. Also parts of the story just feel unexplained, unfleshed and left me feeling bewildered. For example, why did Sarmin separate the efreet from the High Mage Govnan and the mage let him do it? Was it simply because Sarmin doesn’t like other beings locked up like he is?

To wrap it up, I think the review by Ranting Dragon has captured my feelings nicely. Reading the book is like watching a chess match, the pace is slow and you don’t always understand why the players made that move but at the same time, you’re intrigued by the maneuvers and intend to wait out till a player pulls out a checkmate move.


  1. The elemental question was posed on Fantasy Faction (in the spoiler section) & if I squash the two answers suggested there together we get:

    I suspect because the elemental had been subject to the same kind of imprisonment that Sarmin himself had suffered for a similar number of years. Sarmin proves to be something of an iconoclast as he comes into his own!

    As to why Govnan was ok with it? Well – I’d suggest that

    i) when your emperor (or near as dammit) decides – you approve
    ii) when someone demonstrates raw magical power in excess of yours – you take note
    iii) if you’re at heart a decent man with the potential to see the evil in slavery… when the action you lacked the moral strength to take is taken for you – you feel relief
    iv) There is a inevitability with mages that the elemental will eventually consume them (death). By ripping the efreet from Govnan, Sarmin has allowed him to survive longer than he might be able to otherwise.


  2. Thanks Mark, it was actually me who posted the question on Fantasy Faction. I just posted the question here again to see if there are any more thoughts on this.