Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Bastard Reaction: The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams
"Ambitious" is often the word I've seen used to describe Mazarkis Williams' debut novel, The Emperor's Knife. I find myself agreeing with that assessment. It's the first of The Tower and Knife Trilogy, which I recognize to be a fitting describer alluding to multiple aspects of what's found within the pages, and perhaps hints at what's to come.
The Cerani Empire faces its greatest threat, an epidemic spreading through the population that allows an unknown enemy, the Pattern Master, to take control of them; the pattern has now reached the body of the Emperor. Few know of this latest predicament, and with the fear of losing the empire, a chain reaction has placed protagonists in the middle of schemes and conspiracies of treachery and power play. Eyul, an aging assassin is tasked with a quest in an attempt to unearth the nature of this epidemic, while he struggles with his conscience as he ruminates on heinous deeds he's done in the name of the empire. Mesema, daughter of a clan chief in the northern plains, is the subject of an arranged marriage and handed to a Cerani general who'll escort her to her intended prince, while conflicted with her self-interest and the sacrifice she's to make as the fate of her clan and that of the empire rests upon her. Prince Sarmin, sole surviving sibling of the Emperor, waits for his intended bride in the tower he's been imprisoned in since his childhood where few even know he exists, and he engages in a private war with the Pattern Master, or maybe he's simply battling his sanity.
The story, much like the characters that experience it, is multifaceted and complex. It's natural to compare it to a Chess game, particularly given the Settu game explored in the novel which has similar qualities. The board is mainly controlled by side characters whose machinations propel the story forward without realizing that they may be "pawns" in someone else's game. As such, other than a few exceptions, it's hard to pin point characters as antagonists in the story, particularly when Mazarkis did such a great job in giving sympathetic aspects to some of them. While motivations were not always clear, it was with little effort with which I managed to put myself in their shoes.
The story is set among deserts, camels and horses are used for travelling, you have caves in the periphery, and the plains with their clans. There's a clear gender divide, culminating with the Emperor's harem, where women have been placed predominately in roles of baby-makers. With fertility comes social standing, and it's interesting to see how similar the empire and the clans from the norther plains are in this regard despite being completely different culturally. I also found it curious how in some instances women could be used to show a sign of strength, yet also to illustrate perceived weaknesses. Following that, it was amusing how they were empowered throughout the novel given this setting and society, using their resources cleverly and in unexpected manners that affected the events of the story in considerate ways.
Pace was a bit of an issue for me, particularly with two parallel storylines dominated by travelling through the desert during a good portion of the novel. It included an action heavy scene that didn't do much for me, which was one of the longest sequences in the novel, albeit an important one. In part because I had trouble grasping the magic system, particular with the use of patterns, and the role of religion in this world. Might just be a failure as a reader, but I found the magic hard to comprehend, in this context, and the religious aspects a bit ungrounded or simply hard to distinguish. The latter served a bigger role towards the concluding portion of the novel than I had envision.
I also thought the blurb found inside the cover jacket was problematic, particularly as it comes to how it influenced my expectations of what I was about to read, but found it to not be representative of the story. Let's just say that portions of the blurb are of less importance than what it leads you to believe, and some of the alluded events don't occur until past the halfway point of the novel. I know I struggled to give the setup of the story above, so I won't give them much grief over it.
While we're at it, I felt there was too much happening "off screen" and left unsaid. As such, some of the progression didn't seem natural. For example, characters that are enemies suddenly becoming friendly once we return to a respective POV, and we're left with a dynamic of playing catch-up while Mazarkis gives us a brief run-down about the change in their association. If I were to speculate it was a measure to make the novel more concise, and considering the pace it might have been for the best at the end of it all.
I really enjoyed reading The Emperor's Knife, despite what my criticisms above might suggest. This world is quite brutal and violent. Not an action heavy novel, as drama dominates the book, it still has plenty going about, and at times quite ruthless. Mirroring the action, I loved how relationships were portrayed. There was an inevitability and matter-of-factness to it which I found refreshing. Some pairings might seemed a bit rushed, but I thought them fitting when considering some of the circumstances and the tone of the novel.
In the limited scope we've been exposed to you can see the potential this world has. I don't know how much of it we'll get to explore in this trilogy (assuming those plans remain unchanged), but there has been some glimpses that could make this a special place. Despite my problems understanding the magic and religion, I think there's an underlying awesomeness to it that I really can't wait to learn more about.
The story itself is nothing groundbreaking, but the sum of the parts makes it a compelling one. While some aspects were a bit too transparent and predictable, it was balanced with quite a few interesting twists. Some good characters to be found, but I found that Sarmin stole the show and I'm sure he'll be a favorite of many. One of those few amazingly unique characters one has the pleasure of discovering.
While this might not be my favorite 2011, but certainly among the favorites, in my opinion Mazarkis showed he/she might just be the most talented writer of the ones I read. I found Mazarkis' words to have a great flow and rhythm to them, and a way of mixing bluntness with the subtle. There's a particular passage that really got to me as there's a character ruminating on how there are different ways to lose your innocence, and considering some of the recent happenings, it really has stayed with me. Needless to say, that it was one of the many examples of Mazarkis' writing that impressed me and I know that I'm missing out on some of the passages that probably required a bit more work from the reader.
The Emperor's Knife is a book I envision having great support and it's fair share of detractors. I think it's a novel that requires patience, but in my opinion the payback is or will be worth it. As mentioned above, Mazarkis is a talented writer, that at the very least one should keep an eye out for regardless of the opinion of this particular installment. As for myself, I'm counting the days until Knife Sworn.
Buy The Emperor's Knife from The Book Depository: paperback or hardcover.
Please visit Mazarkis William's blog and follow him/her on Twitter for some good insights and information about his/her work and the world we live in.