THE EMPEROR'S KNIFEA novel by Mazarkis Williams
(2011, Night Shade Books)
Tower and Knife Trilogy, book 1
In a land where people become slaves to the Pattern Master, and are sent to death for carrying the marks, the Emperor develops a pattern, and people search for ways to save him, or dethrone him in the name of the Empire.
-- First reading (ebook)
This book delivered some very interesting characters, within a land whose setting is obviously much larger than what is presented in the book. Political machinations to remove the Emperor contrast with schemes to create an heir to the throne and a hidden enemy. Unfortunately, I thought the climax was achieved much too easily, and I wonder how this storyline will continue into the next book, as it appears to have concluded.Spoiler review:
While I liked this novel, I can't place why it felt a little lacking to me. The world seems far more vast than we've been exposed to, and the magic is just hinted at. There is more to this than the current book has told us, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it in the future. But still, I don't understand the motivations of the people involved.
The setting is one of vaguely middle-Eastern feel, and the emperor's city is surrounded by sand, mountains within several days' journey by camel. The city itself is likely falling apart, except in the Royal grounds. We don't really know what the Maze is, except that it's probably a poor area where prostitutes can be found. The culture is not tolerant of failure, so the few who have risen high in rank hold all the power, and most of the people hold nothing. Women only exist for sexual pleasure and making babies (not necessarily the same thing, as the Emperor has not produced any heirs). The ones who do have babies are to walk around showing their breasts, which makes no sense to me at all, except that it seems to be a mark of honor. The Emperor's mother is one such, who bore six children, so can walk around proudly topless.
Unfortunately, after the death of her husband (from what causes, I don't think we're ever told), all potential threats to the throne are killed -meaning three of the four brothers (Sarmin is saved, we learn later, because he has a potential for great magic).
There is a history here that we are not privy to, except in small exclamations here and there. For the last generation (or so), a geometric pattern has been forming on the skin of some citizens of the city, and after a while, they become fully patterned, and turn to evil purposes. There is magic in the form of the Pattern-Master, whom we only meet at the end of the story, as it should be. In order to restore peace, anybody who shows the mark of the pattern must be put to death immediately.
The story takes place in basic form from four points of view, all of which enjoyed great development, though sometimes I didn't understand why they did what they were doing.
Some of the motivations are easy, like Tuvaini, who wants to be emperor, and can see a way through the Pattern, which has developed on the emperor's chest -by his own law, the emperor should be put to death. Tuvaini makes deals with the Patterned people to show how Beyon is doing a poor job, showing them secret ways into the city to attack various people (himself included). He lusts after the emperor's mother. It turns out that he is distantly related to the emperor, and when the time comes, he takes advantage of that fact, revealing Beyon's Pattern and taking the throne, as well as Beyon's mother.
He miscalculates, however, as his secret mistress is killed to eliminate threats to to the new throne, and then, after he's consolidated his position and sent troops out to make war, the Pattern master shows up and usurps him!
Eyul the assassin is definitely the most-developed person in the novel. According to law, or tradition at least, only the royal assassin can kill a royal. He was the one who killed all the emperor's brothers (save Sarmin), but he learns later on that some people won't let tradition get in the way of their desires.
Tuvaini sends Eyul on a mission to try and get information about the Pattern from the Hermit. I wondered through most of the book if that was simply to get Eyul out of the way, because the mission serves no real purpose to the plot. The Hermit (who is really the Pattern-master) gives Eyul false information, saying that the head wizard of the Tower is in the way of a cure -in reality, he is the one blocking the Pattern-master from gaining full control of Beyon.
But the journey allows Eyul to grow. He is already a master assassin, unmatched in skill, but he is joined by a female wizard, whom he resents until he gets to know her. Somehow she sneaks into his vulnerabilities, and when they almost die in the desert, he is very much concerned for her. The Hermit's people rescue them (they encountered a strange city that raised out of the desert and projected visions that were part true reality, and which nearly blinds him). On their way back, Eyul's knife (the Emperor's Knife) starts talking to him, telling where his enemies are when he can't see. He and the wizard come to an understanding that they love each other, but after they make love, he sees that the Pattern has touched her, and he kills her.
But that is the beginning of the change in him. He becomes obsessed with killing the head wizard, but when the chance comes to him, he realizes, through the knife, that the Hermit gave him misleading information, and enters into conspiracy instead. It was a bizarre change of events, but welcome. The fleeing emperor finds him, and he decides to follow, instead of killing, which I think he regrets doing to the wizard in the desert.
Beyon is described from the outside, by Tuvaini and others, so it's hard to get a real perception of him. In contrast to when his father ruled, Beyon keeps his halls empty, and doesn't seem to have any real power. When Tuvaini forces him to flee, he goes into hiding and watches helplessly as his wives are tortured to lure him out so he can be captured. Eyul is forced to kill each of his wives to end their suffering, and Beyon ends up hiding in the unfinished tomb meant for him -when the Pattern finally takes him, he kills himself.
In the desert land, far from the city, Mesema and Banreh are people of the Felt. Mesema is sold to the Royal family to become wife of Sarmin, the delusional brother of the emperor, unknown to Beyon. It's actually the Emperor's mother who arranges this, in order to gain an heir to the throne, even if she never intends Sarmin to become emperor. I liked Mesema, and she became a strong character, going through growing pains, especially as she learns of Banreh's love and starts to return it. Banreh is true to the lands of his people, though, and refuses, as he knows she will be rejected if she turns out not to be a virgin. She travels across the desert to the palace, evading assassination attempts, and the city rising out of the desert, learning what it means to be out in the larger world. Before she arrives at the palace, Beyon discovers her, and is quite taken with her. His mood seems fickle, though, as he wants to give her as a gift to his brother, but really wants her to himself, and seems to be in no hurry to giver her away. That becomes irrelevant as he is usurped, but she goes into hiding with Beyon and Eyul.
Finally, we get to Sarmin, who is pretty crazy as he's been locked up in his room for the last fifteen years, with almost no visitors, and only his five books on royal protocol for company. He talks to the gods he thinks he sees in the walls, and then discovers the Patterns. It turns out he's a powerful mage, with the power to unravel the patterns. He walks through the minds of some people when he discovers this, making patterns of his own, and even removes one woman from the collective of the Pattern when she comes to kill him. He sends her out into the wild desert, to be his eyes and ears, searching for cities that have been massacred by the Pattern-master, as well as the city that rises out of the desert.
The climax of the novel is the weakest part, as Sarmin, who is afraid to leave his room, is convinced by Eyul and Mesema to do so, finally, and he walks into the throne room and dissolves the patterns, killing the Pattern master with barely a word.
I hope we learn more about the lands outside the city-Palace in the next book, as they seemed more interesting to me. Tuvaini put things in motion out there that Sarmin might not be able to halt easily, and I want to see a lot more of Mesema as she gains confidence and becomes a powerful force for change in the city.
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