[Review] The Emperor’s Knife

The Emperor's Knife

I got this book from its publisher, Night Shade Books, free as part of a Thanksgiving giveaway. It’s taken me until now to get around to it, partly because I was kind of avoiding epic fantasy over the holidays. They take too much time.

I don’t know if I’d’ve picked this one up if I had to pay for it – I may never even have noticed it at all. (So. Many. Books.) Now that I’ve read it, I can say it’s definitely worth the splurge. I would like to continue the series, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to afford it. That said, many thanks to Night Shade Books for their generosity!

This particular epic fantasy has the twist of a pseudo-Arabic setting, complete with camels, harems, and lots of sand. Oh, and the killing of potential heirs in childhood, to prevent future inheritance issues. Except for the one they keep locked up in a tower as a spare. Welcome to Cerana.

This becomes a relevant plot point early on, because apparently the Emperor is dying and has produced no heirs. Also he’s cursed. He’s been infected with a disease(?) that produces complex tattoos on his body and will eventually take his mind and turn him into a killing machine. The Carriers, as they are called, are considered a serious threat to the empire and the Emperor’s own laws call for any found with the pattern to be killed and their bodies burned.

Suddenly, that extra prince in the tower becomes very useful indeed. A plot is formed to marry him off to a girl from the plains riders in order to  produce an heir. And he might become Emperor when his brother dies, although the Lord High Vizier thinks he’s completely mad. Of course, technically, the Vizier is plotting treason, but that’s royal politics for you.

The story has four major POV characters: the tower prince, Sarmin; the Vizier, Tuvaini; the plains rider betrothed, Mesema; and the Emperor’s Knife, Eyul, the only man with the right to kill royals.

Sarmin spends 90% of the book in the tower room, but is surprisingly active in events despite that limitation. The fact that he’s a born magic user has something to do with it, although he doesn’t figure that out until trips into it. And there are times when the reader can’t exactly tell if he’s sane or not, which makes him more dangerous than you’d expect from a man alone in a tower.

Tuvaini, however, hops from the treasonous plot to get Sarmin an heir to a treasonous plot that puts himself on the throne. Through him, we get the sense of the palace and its politics, and are introduced to various secondary players in the various treason plots. He’s not a nice guy, but he’s not really malicious, just power-hungry and blind to anything that doesn’t serve his purpose.

Mesema is a fascinating character, and a complete outsider to the Cerani culture. The plains riders, called The Felt, are a pretty typical tribal society, so Mesema’s trip from the plains to the desert palace teaches her (and us) all sorts of things that an outsider would need to know. When she discovers she’s being used as part of a treason plot, she expects to be killed when the Emperor finds out. She takes this remarkably well, but finds herself instead delivered to the harem by the Emperor himself.

Eyul embodies the role of honorable assassin, though he’s been at it for a number of years and the joints don’t always react the way they should. He’s sent by Tuvaini to seek information on the pattern disease, but that doesn’t work out the way either of them expect. By the time he gets back to the palace, the pattern magic has mostly taken over and it’s time for backstabbing: literally and figuratively.

Patterns are a major part of the book; the primary threat of the book is driven by the Carriers and the patterns that drive them. It’s a theme as well, the precision of patterns, the trap of that precision and the ways to break or change the pattern, which change its meaning and effect. There’s also the game Settu, a combination of chess and dominoes, which makes visible the impact of actions and their patterns. I may just be a sucker for pattern magic, though. It’s an excellent descriptive tool that the author employs properly; it adds another layer of detail to the story (which is pretty layered to begin with.)

The book follows the epic fantasy roadmap well, keeping to the relevant points without making it seem like a checklist. The characters all have depth and personality, which makes them entertaining to read and also very human. There are shades of grey in this book. The villains aren’t all bad and the heroes have their blemishes. The setting seems pretty solid, and even though there’s a lot of places where you can see the tropes, they’re handled deftly and often in unexpected ways; while certain aspects are occasionally stereotypical, the worldbuilding as a whole is deft enough that it never feels like Just Another Fantasy World.

There’s a lot of meat to the character arcs, as well, especially Sarmin and Mesema (who look to be the central series characters). Their choices have consequences, and those consequences impact the story. The author brings their threads together organically, which gives the story as a whole a relatively seamless progression. This can be tricky given the number of POVs, but the author does it well. There’s missteps here and there, a bit of handwaving in a couple places makes the transitions a little too smooth, but they’re relatively minor.

And may I say the romantic arcs in this book are splendid? There’s a realistic May-December romance with Eyul (who, by his character, is an unlikely candidate to begin with) and a wonderfully complex romance arc for Mesema, involving an old love, her new husband-to-be, and his brother. Oh, and her husband-to-be’s beloved. It’s remarkably organic despite its complexity, and there’s no whining on anybody’s part, nor is there any significant jealousy component. Alternative relationship win!

The only editing issues I saw were probably typesetting errors (missed spaces), which is to be expected from a Real Publisher. After some of the indies I’ve been reading, this was refreshing. It helps to remember that manuscripts can be as good as their stories, sometimes.

All in all, I found this a delightful read. I would recommend it highly, especially to fans of Arabic-style fantasies. Even if you’re not, give this a look; it might surprise you.

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