Review: THE EMPEROR’S KNIFE by Mazarkis Williams

A few months ago, I had the privilege of being approached by Nightshade Books to blurb THE EMPEROR’S KNIFE by Mazarkis Williams. I blurbed it thus:

Mazarkis Williams creates a world in which magic is written in an alphabet of triangles, circles, crescents; inscribed on skin; spelled out in blood and bodies. Likewise, his epic story is written on the blood and bodies of his characters, swept up in grand designs in which they are merely letters. In Williams’ decadent empire, everyone—even the emperor—is subject to the constraining hands of fate and tradition. A royal can only be imprisoned by silk, but in Williams’ world, silk does not yield easily. Even as their options narrow, his characters struggle to fulfill their desires. It’s easy for someone with a thousand freedoms to choose heroic paths, but Williams renders characters who must strive to do their best even as the path they tread tapers to a fine line. They are revealed in the way they navigate the impassable and the impossible.

A fascinating magic system, a decadent empire, secret paths, hidden princes, dust and silk and horses: THE EMPEROR’S KNIFE considers the humanity of the standard fantasy set pieces, especially those men who were initiated by blood and who rule by blood, and the ways in which their actions are both unforgivable and bound by strings they didn’t create and don’t entirely understand. Sarmin is forbidden to leave his lonely tower; Beyon’s throne is soaked in the blood of his loved ones; a little girl in the Maze falls under her father’s strike. None of them could control the circumstances that put them there—the fathers who turned the key and guided the Knife and wielded the cleaver—but unlike the dead child, Sarmin and Beyon have the fortune and power to change what happens next.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the book. Because I am reviewing as well as blurbing in this context, I’ll add some of my criticisms as well. The pacing in the book is uneven so there are moments when it moves slowly and moments when I would say that it moves too quickly. (This is not, in my experience, unusual for long fantasy novels.) There are points where it seems to want to be Guy Gavriel Kay, but isn’t, where the emotional energy of the scene could use a bit more finessing so that it creates the same emotion in the reader as it does in the characters (again, in my experience, not unusual for long fantasy novels).

My largest complaint about the book, though, is that the evil characters are a Bit Too Evil. There were points where I wanted much more ambiguity–from the protagonists, sometimes, but definitely from the villains–then the book was willing to provide me. Since there’s a lot of delicate work in the background of the novel, it felt weird for unsubtle villainous elements to drop in; it felt like they were working against the intricacy elsewhere.

One thing I really like about the book, though, which I didn’t know when I blurbed it, is that this is a book that grew on me. I find that very few books stay static in my memory from the time I read them. Some grow; others diminish. EMPEROR’S KNIFE is a book that increases in richness for me and has left a strong impression of mood and images. I credit this to Williams’ world-building. A lot of the books in Nightshade’s recent line seem to emphasize worldbuilding–Kameron Hurley’s GOD’S WAR, Courtney Schafer’s WHITEFIRE CROSSING, even Stina Leicht’s BLOOD AND HONEY which is very careful about building its world even though it takes place on boring old Earth (which isn’t boring as she writes it).

I think at Nightshade, the editors may subscribe to the philosophy that Kameron Hurley describes in her recent blog entry “The Dirty Little Secret of Imaginative Worldbuilding“–” I got tired of reading unimaginative fiction that claimed to be fantastic. If I just wanted a story about people who lived and loved, I’d read more lit fiction. I come to the SF/F for the worldbuilding, for the ways things can be different.”

To be honest, the first part of that statement drives me kind of nuts because I think there’s lots of fantasy & sci fi that’s not dependent on world-based differences and still is strong fantasy & sci fi. I’d better think that given what I write. But ignoring that, I think Nightshade is publishing writers who are doing interesting work with creating worlds that are unusual.

Readers who are interested in gender/sex/stuff may be interested to know that Mazarkis Williams is writing from a gender neutral persona. This is of particular interest to me because I automatically gendered Williams male as you can see from the above blurb. I’m not sure if that’s because, in the absence of cues, my brain went “hey, Williams is a male name”–but it wasn’t until I contacted the author to talk about doing a short review of the book that I realized, “Wait. On what basis am I assuming this person is male?”

I think the gender neutral persona is fascinating from a marketing perspective, but it also makes the text interesting meta-fictionally. It would be super-interesting to see how differently people read the book based on whether they unintentionally gendered the author male or female. It would also be interesting to see how many people did not come to a conclusion regarding the author’s gender, assuming that they’re readers who are interacting with author-as-presence-in-the-text (which may just be a feature of the way that writers read, or at least of how this writer reads, I dunno).

Also, it’s just kind of cool. Because it’s unusual. And it means hir avatar on the Nightshade site is a silhouette with glasses.

Mazarkis was kind enough to do a brief interview with me to supplement my ramblings and explain more about hirself and the book.

Mazarkis Wiliams on THE EMPEROR’S KNIFE

RS. Your book seems similar to several of the other recently published Nightshade texts I’ve read over the past few years in that there’s a heavy emphasis on building a sweeping setting that fits easily within the traditional fantasy oeuvre, but distinguishes itself with an inventive magic system. How did you approach working with the magic and setting in this book? Was it your intent to comment on other kinds of magic systems? Was either the magic or the setting part of your primary inspiration when you started writing?

MW. I am surprised and pleased to fit right into the Night Shade catalogue.

The first thing you should know is that I lack imagination. When I first wrote about the marks on the skin, I was thinking of bubonic plague. And from there, thinking about biological warfare, how infecting a population can precede an invasion. But of course, that’s not magical. That’s not fantasy. So the infection had to be a magical one.

After the book was written I began to see a number of stories in which marks on the skin, or tattoos, conferred some sort of magical benefit or disability. I was not attempting to comment on these or any other magic systems. I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to the magic systems in other books. I see them as elements of the more important themes.

For example, in WHITEFIRE CROSSING, there is a predatory element to the magic (I don’t want to give too much away here). I’m interested in the guy who has magical ability but also carries a great deal of guilt. The magic contributes to the bigger story of how he will balance his talent and his conscience.

Fantasy novels often turn upon a choice or sacrifice made by a character in relation to the magic. And it’s the character I care about, his journey, his struggle.

The story of TEK began with Sarmin, in a room. It started with a character.

RS. THE EMPEROR’S KNIFE follows a number of characters through intense plotlines. What was it like to juggle so many characters and events? Did you start out knowing how they’d intersect? Were some of the characters/plotlines more comfortable for you, and did you ever have trouble moving from one to the other?

MW. It was fairly difficult. I did have an idea how they would intersect; that part was easy, because of the paths laid for each character. I was impatient for them all to get together, and when they finally were, it was a hair-pulling adventure to bring all the storylines to a close. I’m trying to be smarter with the second one, but it doesn’t look as if it will be any easier.

I did find, and do find, it difficult to move from character to character. I get into one character’s head and want only to write about her or him. It sometimes takes a great effort of will to say to myself, ‘No, it’s time to write about the next person.’ Once I’ve adjusted I’d say I have the same comfort level with any of them, except for a new POV in book two. I feel extremely comfortable with that POV compared to the others.

RS. What about the book gives you the most joy?

MW. Well, there are two things. Sometimes I create a turn of phrase and then read it back and think, ‘That sounds really great!’ I can’t believe I’m really doing this, that it’s me.

The second joy is that I love my characters. Even the bad ones. Like a parent, I don’t differentiate.

RS. Do you have any upcoming projects? Are you working on a sequel to this, something else in this world, or another kind of text entirely?

MW. I am working on the sequel to The Emperor’s Knife. It’s called Knifesworn. It’s in the same world. TEK does come to a satisfying end, but there are a few loose threads that can be followed. That’s what Knifesworn does.

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