Interview with Anna Smith Spark (A SWORD OF BRONZE AND ASHES)
Anna Smith Spark is the author of the Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series The Court of Broken Knives, The Tower of Living and Dying and The House of Sacrifice; the standalone A Woman of the Sword; and the forthcoming A Sword of Bronze and Ashes, book one of her new folk horror high fantasy series The Remaking of This World Ruined. Her work has been described as ‘a masterwork’ by Nightmarish Conjurings, and ‘extraordinary’ by Spells and Spaceships. She’s dyslexic, dyspraxic, ASD, PhD; previous jobs include English teacher, fetish model and petty bureaucrat. You may know her by the heels of her shoes.
Welcome back to the Hive, Anna, and thanks for joining us for Women in SFF!
Tell us about your upcoming novel, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes? What can readers expect?
Thank you so much for having me back here!
A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is described on the cover as ‘lyrical, poetic folk horror fantasy by the Queen of Grimdark’. It’s book one in an entire new series, set in a new, different world to Empires of Dust. It takes the classic children’s fantasy of my childhood like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Dark is Rising, the stories of children on a magical flight from danger, and retells those stories through the eyes of the adult protector figure. It’s about parents and children, siblings, watching your children grow up. If the Fellowship was an actual family and Aragorn was the hobbits’ mum, maybe. It’s more hopeful than Empires of Dust and A Woman of the Sword, I wrote it coming out of covid lockdown when I’d somehow got myself through a very dark time, the series title The Remaking of This World Ruined refers to … a lot of personal stuff and also the burn it down bleakness of Empires of Dust. I think I found new hope somewhere, or at least wrote until I did.
Give us an insight into your characters, who can we expect to meet?
The protagonist is a woman called Kanda. Bronze skin, flaming red hair, dairy farmer, mother to three daughters, a bit of middle-aged had three children and is a bit too keen on dairy products spread. She’s very fond of beer. She’s terrible at baking. She likes sewing her children’s clothes. She once got so drunk at a party she couldn’t look after her children the next day. She tells fine bedtime stories. Her greatest delight in life is walking over wet grass to fetch the cows in.
And then one day shadows from her past return, threatening everything she loves. And Kanda, like any parent, has things in her past she does not want her children to know.
Marith in Empires of Dust is the love of my life. Lidae in A Woman of the Sword is me as I fear I am. But Kanda in A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is the person I’d like to be.
A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is influenced by Celtic myth, what drew you to this particular mythology this time?
I’ve always loved Celtic myth. I had a wonderful children’s retelling of the Mabinogion called Island of the Mighty when I was very young that my dad used to read me, over the years since I’ve read so many retellings of British and Irish myths and folklore. It’s always been a deep love – and we used to go on holiday to Cornwall and Wales a lot so I would be walking in the places I was reading about, dreaming it would become real like it does in the Weirdstone or the Dark is Rising. During lockdown I read a lot of Celtic history/archaeology and reread those children’s books. It’s a stranger, less real world than in Empires of Dust, almost a dream world, in the way that our knowledge about Iron Age British and Irish life and beliefs is fragmentary and unreal. There’s a rawness, a darkness, to Celtic myth (the Ulster cycle is astonishing in its ferocity), but also a brilliance to it, a luminous quality, far above the Iliadic and Alexander material I was drawing on for Empires of Dust.
You’ve been praised for your portrayal of mothers in grimdark fantasy (your protagonist in A Woman of the Sword was also a mother and a warrior) – it’s well established that mothers are poorly represented in fantasy, but do you think the genre is improving or is there still a way to go?
Argh!!!! There are some amazing, beautiful, complex portrayals of motherhood in fantasy – Tenor in Le Guin’s Tehanu, comes immediately to mind, and I love the way Phedre’s relationship with Imriel is portrayed in Jaqueline Carey’s Kushial’s Legacy trilogy. There’s also a brilliant little detail in Kushial’s Dart where Grainne of the Dal Riada goes to war while in the early stages of pregnancy, she feels good and strong and positive the way a lot of women feel in the first giddy few weeks of a wanted pregnancy. There’s some lovely stuff about children and parenting in Elizabeth Moon’s Paladin’s Legacy series as well, Dorin Veraki adopts a group of children, the whole series conclusion (spoiler alert!) is that settling down and having a family is a much better happily ever after than winning a war.
I think things are changing. It’s actually very interesting and pleasing to see more and more men writing traditional epic fantasy that puts their own experiences as hands-on parents front and centre of the narrative. Garath Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant, for example, is very much focussed on family ties, roles and responsibilities; it’s about a traditional loner, hard-bitten swordsman but grounds him completely in his identity as a brother, a son, an uncle, a friend, in a way that’s completely normal and real. It’s not ‘about family’ in the way A Woman of the Sword or A Sword of Bronze and Ashes are, but it’s very aware of family.
House of the Dragon really got overinvested in the whole ‘childbirth was to women as war was to men’ concept, but I think rather misunderstood what it means (as I’ve always understood it, the phrase refers to bearing and raising healthy sons who reach adulthood before their father dies, rather than actual childbirth – see para on Philipa Gregory below).
To be fair, it is kind of hard to write action and battles and quests and children. There probably is a limit, especially in grimdark and epic fantasy, to how far you can go with a mother-warrior accompanied by fairly young children before it just becomes unrealistic. Realistically – no one would go to either the Lonely Mountain or Mordor accompanied by their kids. Or even, probably, if they had kids but could leave them at home.
And also, to be fair again, we read and write SFF to escape and find wonder and excitement – the grinding reality of life as a mum is a bit of a damper on that. I have two high-needs children in a cramped suburban house, and there’s a pretty obvious reason why I like books about lone men with swords striding through the wilderness.
If you were transported into your own fictional world, how do you think you would fare?
I think I’d manage a bit better in the world of A Sword of Bronze and Ashes than I would in Empires of Dust. In Empires of Dust, I’d be dead before page one ended. In this world, I think I’d maybe make it through at least to chapter two.
It’s set in a valley in Derbyshire that I’ve visited multiple times on holiday with my family, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – the village of Overhadon and the valley of the Lathkill, if anyone wants to go there and see the may trees. If I could avoid the dangers, I could live there very happily as a farmer and hill walker. The terrible truth is that if I lived there I’d never write again, just walk and walk and sit beneath the may trees.
Just for fun, how would you pitch your book as a 1-star review?
A woman fights a battle while on her period. Just gross, and so unrealistic.
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel?
I’m working on book two of The Remaking of This World Ruined now, which is slightly strange after feeling I’d finished and done with Empires of Dust and then writing a standalone in A Woman of the Sword. I keep thinking ‘but I’ve finished. My work here is done’ then realising it really isn’t. And – ultimate first world problem – the reviews of A Sword of Bronze and Ashes have been incredible, which is scaring me into thinking two book will never live up to book one.
I’m also working on a novella set in the same world as A Sword of Bronze and Ashes, which will be published by Books On the Hill Press as a part of their brilliant series of adult dyslexia-friendly books – novella length stories in a special dyslexia friendly font and layout, but with complex, adult content. I’m dyslexic myself, it’s a brilliant initiative to be part of. It’s absurdly high fantasy, almost Clark Ashton Smith in tone: something about the font and formatting I have to use has made me really reach for the highest of the high fantasy wonders. Leaping horses to another world behind the rising sun, women with bird’s wings and goat’s feet, a glass city whose queen lives captive in a tower with no windows or door … it’s insane and beautiful and a joy to write. No plot yet, though I have high hopes one will turn up shortly.
Who are the most significant women in SFF who have shaped and influenced your work?
Le Guin, obviously – pretty much anyone, of any gender, who writes interesting SFF is writing in her shadow, the Earthsea Quartet had and continues to have a huge influence on my work. I’ve read the books so many times now and still find new things in them, new joy in just how beautiful Le Guin’s prose can be and how humane and thoughtful her understanding of the world is.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s stories of King Arthur, Tristian and Iseult, Finn McCool and CuChulainn had a huge impact on me as a child. Also Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence. And later, in my teens, Mary Stewart’s Arthur trilogy.
And it’s not SFF, but as I’ve said before here I think, Philipa Gregory’s Cousins’ War and Tudor novels are superb envisionings of real women living through wars, high politics, court intrigues/murder/lust – much the same ground as GRRM, for fairly obvious reasons, but from the perspective of the women as very realistic wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers, in a violent male-dominated world of clashing kings and ruthless men.
Who is a great woman in SFF who we should be reading? Any hidden gems?
I’m absolutely loving Shauna Lawless’ Gael Song novels about Irish myth and history. It’s absolutely in the tradition of brilliant historical/mythology writers like Mary Stewart and Rosemary Sutcliff, creating a convincing, magical historical world. You really believe the people living at that time saw the world the way Shauna writes it.
Hidden gems …probably not all that hidden to Hive readers, but I have to give a shout out to Shona Kinsela (Ashael Rising) and J. E. Hannaford (The Black Hind’s Wake duology, Gates of Hope). I think I talked about Ashael and Gates when I was last interviewed here – and I’ll strongly recommend both books again. Healing, beautiful fantasy rooted in family and community, in people fighting to protect and support those they care about.
Thank you so much for joining us for Women in SFF!
A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is due for release on 12th September.
You can pick up your copy from Bookshop.org