Emperor's Knife (Tower and Knife Trilogy) - Mazarkis Williams If there's one thing I can be certain of about my taste in books, it is that I can never resist a tale of dark fantasy -- especially one involving magic, assassins, and court politics. That Mazarkis Williams does it all in such a unique way is an extra added bonus.

It's going to be a little tough to describe this book without revealing too much, but here are the basics: across the Cerani Empire, a disease is spreading throughout the populace, manifesting as geometric forms and lines that spread across the skin. The afflicted quickly worsen and lose control, becoming part of an overall "pattern" and losing themselves to will of the "Pattern Master". All those marked are believed doomed and put to death, so you can imagine the resulting freak-out when it is rumored that Emperor Beyon himself has begun exhibiting the tell-tale marks.

Only a few people at court know the truth about Beyon being marked by the pattern, amongst them the Emperor Mother Nessaket, the crafty vizier Tuvaini, and the royal assassin Eyul. Of course, the question is, are these Beyon's loyal subjects there to help him, or might they actually be harboring their own ideas on just who should take the throne?

Also, one would definitely not want to be a younger male child in this particular royal family. Following tradition, Beyon's brothers were all killed the day their father died and he took the throne; that is, all except Prince Sarmin, who was kept locked up in a tower as a secret backup -- just in case. One of the many schemes set in motion in this book involves the arranged marriage of the secret lost prince to a daughter of a Felt chieftain, a young Windreader seer named Mesema. Thus this intricate tale of court intrigue is woven together through the eyes of all these characters.

And out of all of those characters, I think I have to say I enjoyed Mesema's narrative the best. On the surface, a story about a young girl being packed off to a foreign land to marry a total stranger is nothing new, but while many other reviewers have found her characterization to be on the weaker side, I actually felt most connected to her. It was a curious development, considering the male-dominated cast, but quite honestly, a very clear personality profile of Mesema emerged for me in her dialogue and interactions, whereas I felt all the other characters felt bland in comparison, almost like they were missing something.

A similar sensation arose when I though about my feelings about the book overall. The Emperor's Knife features some gorgeous writing and superb storytelling, but once again, a part of me just wanted a little more. More action, perhaps? More excitement, more emotion, more "edge"? I know I hit upon several dry spots in the book which lost me briefly, and part of the reason for this is the frequent jumping around of points-of-view and scene changes. Rather than keeping me on my toes, my focus was instead hindered by the confusion of always trying to figure out where I was and who I was following. I'm happy to say the book finally finds its groove in its last quarter, though; from then on, the momentum was like one of an unstoppable freight train gloriously hurtling me all the way to the end.

The book's world, too, is something I want to talk about. I already mentioned that the writing was gorgeous, and this is immediately clear from the way the author can bring beauty to what is otherwise a barren desert setting. There is one particular scene involving flowers in bloom and their sweet perfume amongst the sandy dunes that I know I will always remember. The skill with which the descriptions are handled are such that I have no problems envisioning it all in my mind.

As it also turns out, one of the most impressive things about this book are its magic systems, something I did not expect at all when I first picked this up. Recently, fantasy authors have been coming up with all kinds of incredible stuff, and the "pattern concept" in The Emperor's Knife is probably one of the more unique ones I've read about in the last few years. First of all, the pattern disease itself has a sort of magical basis behind it, but there are also these mages in this book that harness their powers by sucking that energy from elemental spirits that they "imprison" within them. And it is most definitely not a symbiotic relationship, I can tell you that.

Over all, despite some issues with pacing, this was a wonderful fantasy debut from Mazarkis Williams.

Check out this review and more like it at The BiblioSanctum.