Saturday, May 11, 2013

Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams

Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams is the first book of The Tower and Knife trilogy published by Night Shade Books in the US and Jo Fletcher in the UK. A synopsis can be found here. Knife is a complicated, ambitious, and ultimately successful stand alone novel in a planned trilogy from a first time author. Resonant in Williams' creation are themes of isolation, growth, and destiny with each of the main characters; Sarmin, Eyul, and Masema travel a fascinating path of discovery, both internal and external.

What I found particularly fascinating is how Williams' created three very different characters in Sarmin, Eyul, and Masema and yet links them together through their isolation, sacrifices, and origin stories. The three main characters are different in nearly every way: culture, gender, age, etc. However, each of them shares a crushing sense of isolation and imprisonment. Each share a sense of compassion. Each shares an origin story rooted in the selfishness of others. These common threads allow the reader to see the world from multiple viewpoints, shaded by age, experience, gender, etc. but still keep the reader well-grounded in the narrative. I feel that this structural choice is essential to anchoring the narrative and keeping the complexity of the story within the reader’s grasp.

The growth exhibited by each of the main characters is remarkable within the confines of a single book. While none are children, they are each naive and slaves to their roles. In the course of the narrative, they begin to question these assumptions. Eventually, they break free of their self-imposed shackles and begin to chart their own paths. This narrative arc provides a lot of the tension in the story. It gives Knife a vitality and imbues the characters with a relatable agency.

Another interesting element of the narrative is how Williams' toys with the idea of destiny via the Pattern and social roles. Eyul, Sarmin, and Masema all feel imprisoned by their destiny whether it be the result of tradition, expectations, or the Pattern Master’s machinations that lock them on their perceived pre-ordained path. Yet, it feels like Williams' is thumbing hens nose at common uses and perceptions of destiny-- especially during the sequence where the Pattern Master reveals the grandeur of his design to Sarim, demoralizing him completely. Ultimately, each character's eyes are opened, literally in Eyul’s case, to the fact that they control their own fate.

Lastly, I enjoyed Mazarkis Williams’ voice. Williams’ has a stately and dramatic voice that occasionally veers to the florid. It brings a heaviness to the text that complements the sense of isolation experienced by the main characters. Most impressive however, is how Williams’ is able to alter hens tone appropriately in the dialogue. Eyul’s common tongue isn’t burdened with the more stately voice of the narrator, for example. This contrast provides the text an added layer of texture that I found very pleasant.

I did have some misgivings with the book. Primarily I had issues with Williams’ treatment of women. Nearly every female character is a victim -- usually at the hands of man -- although some, such as Lapella, suffer at the hands of other women. As the text progresses, women becoming increasingly impotent. Amalya’s character arc was particularly irritating in that regard. Sarmin’s relationship with Grada is another sequence I wish had been handled differently. I often wondered while reading the text if that relationship would have worked if Grada had been a man rather than a woman.

While this makes sense culturally in Knife's world, I was frustrated that Williams didn’t provide an exception to create a sense of contrast or demonstrate female agency. This is keenly felt with Masema, who as an outsider, was a logical choice to create a strong, independent female lead. Yet for most of the book, Masema is handed off from one man to the next, intent on bearing this indignity nobly. Only at the end of the book does she begin to show some independence, but she is still bound by her unequal relationship with Sarmin. Hopefully, this changes during the course of the next entry in The Tower and Knife trilogy; I can see the groundwork Williams is laying to strengthen Masema’s character, and I hope this extends to other female characters. However, within the scope of Emperor’s Knife, I felt Williams’ treatment of women to be the novel’s biggest negative.

Emperor’s Knife as a whole is a great read; Mazarkis Williams is an exciting new voice in fantasy. The story is complex and ambitious, but Williams not only manages it -- she pushes it to excellence. Spicing things up is a refreshing, dynamic setting that sets it apart from most recent fantasy releases. At its heart however, Emperor’s Knife explores familiar themes of self worth, friendship, and change. I look forward to the rest of The Tower and Knife series.

Memorable Quotes:
“And Kashim fell silent,...”
“The Pattern Master had made his push, and the tiles were falling.”
“‘I am Carried.’”
Jo Fletcher: The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams
Image Source: Jo Fletcher
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597803854