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The Court of Broken Knives (Empires of Dust)…
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The Court of Broken Knives (Empires of Dust)

by Anna Smith Spark

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Anna Smith Spark's The Court of Broken Knives is epic, grim, and filled with amoral characters; and its delivered with an unconventional writing style. It worked for me, since I value and enjoy books that deviate from the norm; the oddly poetic style became familiar as if I was listening to the author narrate. This kicks off a trilogy, the last of which is due out this Fall:

Empires of Dust
(1) The Court of Broken Knives
(2) The Tower of Living and Dying
(3) The House of Sacrifice (August 2019)

A polarizing writing style supported by themes of death and rebirth: Anna Smith Spark opens with a disorienting dream-like chapter that proves to be a mix of flashback and drug induced hallucination. Then the sequence continues with fragmented sentences, one word sentences, and sentences lacking subjects. Excerpts capture this well (below).

Chapters switch across multiple perspectives, shifting in tense, and person (first and third). It had the potential to be entirely incoherent, but there is consistency across all this, and a uniting story that keeps it glued together.

Expect some jarring prose that is actually well organized. The beginning offers a lot of conflict (person vs. person, person vs family, person vs self, other-person vs a different group, etc.), but these all converge. The glue holding all together is the replaying of history; readers are watching a grand struggle replay itself: Amrath's bloodline (death embodied) fighting the city of Sorlost (the city where life & death are balanced). What resonated with me was the the "Beauty in Death" theme which becomes real via Marith.

Grim & nontraditional content: If the style doesn't throw you, the grim content might. However, the author is "the Queen of Grimdark" and is targeting dark fantasy readers. The Court of Broken Knives is full of characters who you'll find broken, despicable, but you may end up cheering for them anyway because you'll want to see their potential realized. Several gay and bisexual pairings are becoming the norm now, and Smith dishes up several couples that read very accessible (this is not a romance book).

Four characters become most prominent:
Marith Altrersyr : He's a "hatha" (drug) addict with demonic inner potential. He inspires death on a huge scale, has a penchant for murdering and killing his loved ones. He is haunted by some of these experiences, and inspired by others.

Tobias: He's a sub-leader of a crew of mercenaries with a love-hate relationship with Marith.

Thalia: She's a high priestess and an empathetic woman, who is also accustomed to killing innocents to maintain the living/dying balance expressed via the customs of the God Tanis and City of Sorlost.

Orhan: He's a politician whose calm demeanor belies his desire to take over the city.

Excerpts
1) Regarding the titular Court of Broken Knives (within Sorlost):
“They strolled down the wide sweep of Sunfall and crossed the Court of the Broken Knife. A single pale light flickered beneath the great statue in the centre of the square, too small in the dark. A woman sat beside it, weeping quietly. It was a place where someone was always weeping. The statue was so old the man it depicted had no name or face, the stone worn by wind and rain to a leprous froth tracing out the ghost of a figure in breastplate and cloak. A king. A soldier. A mage lord. An enemy. Even in the old poems, it had no face and no story and no name. Eyeless, it stared up and outward, seeing things that no man living had ever seen. In its right hand the broken knife pointed downwards, stabbing at empty air. In its left hand it raised something aloft, in triumph or anger or despair. A woman’s head. A helmet. A bunch of flowers. It was impossible to tell.”

2) Example writing style:
"A dead dragon is a very large thing. Tobias stared at it for a long time. Felt regret, almost. It was beautiful in its way. Wild. Utterly bloody wild. No wisdom in those eyes. Wild freedom and the delight in killing. An immovable force, like a mountain or a storm cloud. A death thing. A beautiful death, though. Imagine saying that to [character]’s family: he was killed fighting dragon. He was killed fighting a dragon. A dragon killed him. A dragon. Like saying he died fighting a god."

3) Beauty and Death
: "Marith swerved his horse toward her. His face was rapturous. Ecstatic. So beautiful her heart leaped. He raised his sword and for a moment she thought he would kill her, and for a moment she thought she would welcome it if he did. So beautiful and perfect his face. So joyous and radiant his smile." ( )
  SELindberg | Apr 20, 2019 |
4 1/2 stars

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel. It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength. Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do [...]

Read the full review at SPACE and SORCERY BLOG
( )
  SpaceandSorcery | Dec 25, 2018 |
Well, by Jove, I wanted to find out what grimdark was and I think The Court of Broken Knives is more or less a one-novel definition of the term. Searingly brutal, full of political intrigue, without a single purely good character, but plenty of fascinating ones, this debut fantasy gripped me with the tenacity of a cutthroat in a dark alley. It isn't without its issues, as you'd expect in a first novel, but it has a fearless, blood-drenched flair.

The time is coming, and the pieces are falling into place. In the middle of a bleak, barren desert, a small band of mercenaries slogs through the sand towards their next job, led by their captain Tobias. In the city of Sorlost - centre of the empire, centre of civilisation, centre of the world - elegant, jaded aristocrats plot the assassination of their emperor. In the Temple, the High Priestess fulfils her duties and waits for the unknown day when her successor will be drawn by lot, starting the countdown to her own necessary death. And, among the ragtag men who stumble after Tobias through the endless sands, the beautiful youth Marith struggles to control the shadows and strange compulsions in his mind...

For the full review (which will go live on 9 June 2017), please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2017/06/09/the-court-of-broken-knives-anna-smith-spark ( )
  TheIdleWoman | Jun 8, 2017 |
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They?ve finally looked at the graveyard of our Empire with open eyes. They're fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust. In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion - and only one man can see it. Haunted by dreams of the empire's demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built. The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him - beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.… (more)

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