The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
OVERVIEW: The Court of Broken Knives is the stunning debut to Anna Smith Spark’s Empires of Dust series. One of two Anna’s to be released in June 2017 (UK), by Harper Voyager, the story of The Court of Broken Knives is outmatched only by the unique voice that tells it. Bold, beautiful, brutal, Smith-Spark lives up to her twitter handle @QueenofGrimdark whilst pushing the boundaries of storytelling amongst recent releases.
THE GOOD: The voice is strong in this one! Right from the start, as the reader, you’re drawn into a world by the power of the words used to describe it to you – but it’s not so much description, more a depth that brings it all to life. Both beautifully inventive as it is brutally evocative, the characters are morbidly mortal, dragged into a doomed destiny of a plot.
THE BAD: The voice is strong in this one! I know, I’ve already said that, but it’s true. You will either love this voice, or never quite grasp the sumptuous simplicity of what it’s saying. If you’ve looking for an a-to-b quest fantasy with paint by numbers characters and complexities, this book is not for you.
THE UGLY TRUTH: The voice is strong in this one? I know, I know, I know! I’m labouring a point, but it’s only fair that I give this book the credit that it’s due. Anna Smith Spark’s voice is equal parts mesmerising as it is magical. It’s more than epic – it’s operatic! But at the same time it has the distortion and drop tuning of a metal band in full force. The Court Of Broken Knives is cranked all the way to 11, and you’ll either be a fan for life, or not quite sure what’s going on.
What sounds like a relatively simple plot line (mercenary hand hired to assassinate an Emperor) turns into one of the most stunning imaginings of fantasy in recent times. Naturally, and not in the least because of the author’s twitter handle, this has earned the label of Grimdark (because who doesn’t love a label), but The Court Of Broken Knives is so much more than that. If I had to throw tags together in an effort to label this, it’d be Grand-Dire, for the sheer opulence of the story telling and the world itself, versus the stakes and the events set in motion.
The world Smith-Spark has woven – and I say woven, because building inspires thoughts of blocks, and The Court Of Broken Knives is a rich tapestry, not levels of lego – is breath taking. Soul destroying at times, too. Yet, somehow, it comes crashing back to earth right when you need it to.
I will have to admit that this took me a moment or two to get used to. Actually, not a moment or two – a chapter of two, in fact.
I fell in love with the first chapter – the opening page in particular. You’ll know what I mean when you read it, but the language, the choice of wording, even the tempo…there’s something about it. A je ne sais quoi that will breed diehards by the thousands, but naysayers, too.
But as I reached the second chapter, I began to notice that I wasn’t grasping everything that the voice was trying to tell me. A sentence here, there, there and there. I was almost reading the words rather than reading what was going on. Now, let me be clear, this isn’t because the voice is speaking in a language that I didn’t understand, the words I knew, but as a reader who takes joy in simple pleasures and straight forward prose (e.g. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, and RJ Barker’s Age of Assassins, as examples from 2017, and of course my love of David Gemmell) I wasn’t fully appreciating what Anna was saying in the telling of this story.
So, I restarted.
And then I got it. Oh boy, I got it.
And it wasn’t just speaking to me. It was singing!
I must’ve only been 10 or so pages in when I restarted (note: I checked, it was page 11) but I’m glad I did. Once I had tuned myself in to the voice, I went from enjoying it, to being wrapped up in it.
And why was this?
Without overdoing it any more, it’s the voice! The sentence structure and wording will be new – dare I say unique – to many readers, and the shifts between first and third person will be staggering until you’re used to it.
Speaking of perspectives, the story is told through that of a quartet of diverse characters. A priestess, a politician, a veteran mercenary, and a seemingly-simple-yet-forever-suffering ranking soldier. The contrast between the two pairings allows for interplay and a comparison of human nature, that is both provocative as it is a pleasure to read and explore. For me, my favourite as is the norm, was the veteran, who I connected with. The priestess in particular allows for an eye-opening account of the perversities and providence in divinity, whilst the politician delves into the sheer determination of mortal will and the downfalls that come with it.
The Court Of Broken Knives is not for the faint hearted – both in terms of themes and the style of delivery. It’s a hard book to put down and come back to, potentially another reason why I had to restart, as I was so caught up with work at time of beginning reading. But, I felt that’s because it’s meant to be devoured. Not a page turner, but a page burner. Once you get into the flow of things, you’ve dragged along, sucked down into the depths, and when you come back up you’ll be gasping for air.
CONCLUSION: I realise that this review is thin on the ground in terms of detail on the plot or the characters – but you can get that from the blurb. This review is here to tell you what the blurb won’t. That this book really is different. It will make you think differently. It will challenge you.
Recommended for fans of Mark Lawrence and R. Scott Bakker, I can understand why, but by the time you’ve finished, you’ll realise there isn’t another author quite like Anna Smith Spark. Not just a new voice. But a different voice.
* This review first appeared on Fantasy Book Critic.