The Emperor’s Knife is one of a flush of Middle-Eastern-inspired fantasies that came out in 2011 – an encouraging trend, since that milieu has been sadly neglected in the genre despite being a rich source of myth and story formerly very popular in the West. The setting is a secondary world rather than the historical Middle East, but with its deserts, grand viziers and palace intrigue it manages to capture an Arabian Nights feel whilst allowing Williams a broader palette for storytelling.
The central conceit of the book is the Pattern, a magical analogue of the elaborate pattern of a Persian rug. The Pattern is generally believed to be a disease: once it appears on a victim’s skin (somewhat like a tattoo), the person either dies or becomes a kind of zombie, physically alive but with their old personality gone. However there’s literally much more to the Pattern than meets the eye, and the characters of The Emperor’s Knife became enmeshed in it in ways they never imagined.
Four main characters carry the narrative: Prince Sarmin, who has been kept locked in a tower since childhood as a secret backup in case his brother the emperor fails to produce an heir; Eyul, the emperor’s Knife, i.e. assassin; Tuvaini, the obligatory scheming grand vizier; and Mesema, daughter of a nomad chieftain and intended bride of Sarmin. These four offer very different and often opposing perspectives on events, and the frequent switches between the four helps to keep the story moving along even when not much is happening in an individual’s timeline.
The narrative pace did sag somewhat in the second quarter; it felt like Williams was struggling to fill the time whilst all the pieces moved into position, resulting in several scenes where characters had long conversations that didn’t amount to much. It didn’t help that some of these conversations were almost too realistic, wandering around a topic that neither character wanted to discuss—or even think about—directly, and in one case I was left very confused as to what was actually going on. However once everyone got back to the capital city the pace started to pick up and I read the second half of the book in a couple of days.
Also, whilst the characters were generally interesting and well-developed, I felt that the assassin Eyul lacked something. Maybe it was just a combination of the aforementioned confusing scenes, Eyul’s own repressed personality and my being unwell whilst reading the book, but his emotional arc didn’t quite work for me.
Flaws aside, though, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book. Prince Sarmin is a delightfully gender-reversed Rapunzel, spurred into action by unexpected visits to his lonely tower, and Mesema is the kind of strong female character I love to read about: not a “kickass warrior babe” male fantasy but a resourceful young woman coping admirably with the scary new world she’s been thrown into. Also, the magic of the Pattern is pleasingly organic, woven into the fabric of the world, its mysteries unrolling before the reader like a…(OK, enough with the Persian rug metaphors! Ed.) *ahem*
In summary, if you’re looking for an action-packed fantasy epic you’re going to be disappointed by this book. If on the other hand you enjoy a character-driven tale of political intrigue as subtle and intricate as the Pattern itself, I can strongly recommend it. It’s a solid debut, and I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.
A tiny gripe about the ebook edition (at least, the one I have): there are no asterisks or similar symbols marking scene breaks, which given the frequent point-of-view switches makes for a slightly uneven reading experience. I appreciate that ebook formatting is still something of a dark art and that inconsistency across platforms is inevitable, but there’s really no excuse for omitting such a simple but vital typographical feature. Publishers, take note!