Published: 27 October 2011 by Jo Fletcher Books
Format: Hardcover, 388 pages
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There is a cancer at the heart of the mighty Cerani Empire: a plague that attacks young and old, rich and poor alike. Geometric patterns spread across the skin, until you die in agony, or become a Carrier, doing the bidding of an evil intelligence, the Pattern Master. Anyone showing the tell-tale marks is put to death; that is Emperor Beyon”s law…but now the pattern is running over the Emperor’s own arms. His body servants have been executed, he ignores his wives, but he is doomed, for soon the pattern will reach his face.
While Beyon’s agents scour the land for a cure, Sarmin, the Emperor’s only surviving brother, awaits his bride, Mesema, a wind-reader from the northern plains. Unused to the Imperial Court”s stifling protocols and deadly intrigues, Mesema has no one to turn to but an ageing imperial assassin, the Emperor”s Knife. As long-planned conspiracies boil over into open violence, the invincible Pattern Master appears from the deep desert. Now only three people stand in his way: a lost prince, a world-weary killer, and a young girl from the steppes who saw a path in a pattern once, among the waving grasses - a path that just might save them all.
This is a wonderfully woven tale that centres on the politics in the Emperor’s court. The story is told from the view of four major characters: Prince Sarmin, who has been imprisoned all his life as insurance in case his brother, Emperor Beyon, leaves no heir; Mesema, a plains-woman from the north and Sarmin’s intended bride; Tuvaini, the High Vizier, and Eyul, the titular Emperor’s Knife (the royal assassin). These four characters are very well written and drive the story superbly. In particular, Tuvaini and Eyul are conflicted men with ambiguous morality, and this makes them the most interesting characters. In contrast, Sarmin and Mesema are genuinely good people who struggle to keep abreast of court intrigue, but are powerful in their own ways.
At less than 400 pages this novel is short for a fantasy novel of such large scope. It is heavily driven by its characters and was enjoyable to read. However, I feel that many important aspects have been left out for the sake of brevity – and the reading experience would have been much more enjoyable if more time was taken to explain a few aspects. The system of magic – the Pattern – is unexplained throughout the whole novel. The wielder is himself the conduit through which magic enters the world, but the manipulation of the Pattern is not explained, and it is unclear why the Pattern is such a bad thing after all. It requires blood sacrifice of some kind, but it seems the Pattern Master controls who dies – and thus the evil is not the magic itself but the wielder. And yet those affected by the Pattern are killed by law because they can be used by the Pattern Master – an unknown man who controls the Empire through obscure magic.
All of the intimate encounters in the book came across as very rushed and somewhat lacking in emotion. For example, Eyul discusses treason against the Emperor with the young mage he is travelling with (and is attracted to), when they are suddenly overcome with passion. Immediately afterwards, however, the pair continue their discussion of treason as though nothing occurred. Mesema’s experiences are similarly disjointed; she admits she loves her fellow plains-man Banreh and has feelings towards Sarmin but feels intimidated by Beyon. And yet when he makes advances towards her she willingly accepts and loses her virginity to the Emperor. For a novel which is driven by its characters, I found the intimacy between characters was not in keeping with their natures, and feel that if the scenes were cut down in the editing process, then the novel would have been better them.
This is an exciting first novel from a talented writer, and Mazarkis Williams has the potential to become a famous name in fantastic literature. The mastery of characters and plot ideas is great, and I look forward to reading future works.