The Court of Broken Knives: Anna Smith Spark

★★★★

Empires of Dust: Book I

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.

Smith Spark’s world definitely feels further along the fantasy spectrum than that in K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy, for example: I would say there’s probably the same amount of fantasy as there is in A Song of Ice and Fire. But the magic is, for the most part, treated as normal by the world’s inhabitants: mages use their powers to do street tricks, or work charms on noblewomen’s litters to make them fireproof. Magic, such as it is, has been tamed. But, from the very earliest part of the book, there’s a sense that something has changed and the rules are shifting. Here be dragons – sometimes nothing more than large and viciously destructive animals – but sometimes more enigmatic creatures, with the ability (of course) to speak an ancient and almost forgotten tongue. Don’t let the idea of ‘magic’ put you off, though. The main thrust of the drama comes from human actions, even if those are sometimes amplified by powers slightly beyond the normal. And the drama itself is, more often than not, of the gritty bloodshed variety.

This is not a book for anyone who’s squeamish about fight scenes. We’re talking about Jacobean levels of blood and bodies here. If you like a good bit of battle writing, though, it’s a veritable feast of ambushes, skirmishes, murder, incineration, war and probably a hundred other ways that people can messily dispose of other people. It wears its credentials very cheerfully on its sleeve (not for nothing is Smith Spark’s Twitter handle @QueenofGrimdark). Yet, even if you quail a bit at the thought of blood, be assured that (despite all the spilled guts, dismemberment and frequent swearing), the characters are vibrant enough to keep you engaged and eager to know what happens next.

I was hooked by the first few chapters in Tobias’s third-person narrative voice: a no-nonsense, contemporary, down-to-earth, here-we-go-again soldier’s commentary that felt pitch-perfect. He felt so vivid at times that I was reminded of Mildmay in the Doctrine of Labyrinths series, who remains my narrative voice to beat; and the interaction between the men in Tobias’s troop had the kind of easy, incidental banter that I enjoyed in Ben Kane’s Eagles novels. There’s a marked and appropriate contrast in voice between these chapters and the more languid, louche, yet fastidious narrative of Orhan’s chapters within the walls of Sorlost. In fact, had the book stuck to alternating Tobias and Orhan I’d have been completely happy. For me the weaker parts were those of Thalia’s narration. She’s the only really prominent woman in the novel and yet, unfortunately, I didn’t feel she was interesting enough to warrant the space she had, especially once she started doing little more than gushing about another character. (I’d have liked a smart, shrewd, ruthless woman to match the men.) I also thought it a misstep to have some of Thalia’s chapters in third person narration and some in first. Ideally they’d all have been in either one or the other, which would have helped with the flow.

The book ended up being a more conventional kind of fantasy novel than I expected from the first few chapters but, nevertheless, I enjoyed it hugely. In a genre that’s sometimes criticised for a lack of diversity, its characters occupy a broad spectrum of ethnicities and sexualities without making a big thing about it, which is very refreshing. I don’t mind a bit of bloodthirstiness now and again, although I think I’ve had several months’ quota here, and I enjoyed the hints of the backstory slowly unfurling and coming together. We finish in an interesting place – new powers, new chances, new dangers – and I’m keen to see where Smith Spark takes this in her next book. (Hopefully there’ll be plenty of Tobias in the next one, and Thalia will be less repetitive on the subject of irresistible beauty.)

I must finish, however, by stressing that this is a hard one to put down. I only opened it to have a quick flick through, get a feel for it, and two days later I’ve read the entire thing and am itching for more. It’s a strong and impressive debut and, incidentally, it’s great to see a woman taking on the male-dominated world of grimdark with such aplomb. So do give this a go if you like your fantasy on the dark side: it’s a compelling, bleak and deliciously twisted tale to savour.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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