“Her husband and children saw at last what she had tried all these long years to keep away.”
The queen of grimdark returns with A Sword of Bronze and Ashes, a lyrical dark fantasy that blends folk horror with the oral traditions of Welsh mythology. Anna Smith Spark’s latest novel is a timeless epic dedicated to the universal trials of motherhood and the power of familial bonds.
Now a mother with a loving husband (Dellet) and three daughters (Calian, Morna, and Sal), Kanda was once the bravest and strongest warrior of the legendary Six Swords of Roven. Kanda’s family knows nothing of her bloody past spent defending the realm against an unspeakable evil. But as the novel opens, her peaceful agrarian life is threatened by the return of this ancient wickedness.
Anna Smith Spark’s writing is so poetic that I felt compelled to read several passages aloud, allowing the full impact and beauty of her words to resonate around me:
“I have found peace here for a little while. I have borne three children, and hoped for them. They will suffer and die—but now they live. And at times it has been so very good.”
Shifting fluidly between first- and third-person narration, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes perfectly evokes the style of early folk tales recorded from oral tradition. The novel’s structure is particularly reminiscent of The Mabinogion, the earliest recorded prose stories from Wales, compiled in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Beyond its technical similarities, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes also beautifully captures the feminist spirit of The Mabinogion, with a powerful female protagonist who balances epic battles with real-life family struggles. Kanda reminds me especially of Rhiannon, the Welsh goddess of strength, endurance, and sovereignty who also inspired Fleetwood Mac’s song of the same name, written by Stevie Nicks. Among the characters of Welsh mythology, Rhiannon is noted for maintaining her dignity and autonomy even under the greatest of external pressures.
As in The Mabinogion, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is permeated with natural mysticism. From the pastoral beauty of its opening chapter through its terrifying scenes of violence, Anna Smith Spark captures both the serenity and brutality of the natural world.
No fantasy author characterizes motherhood as thoughtfully as Anna Smith Spark. Like her previous book, A Woman of the Sword, Anna Smith Spark’s latest novel is fundamentally a book about the struggles and comforts of being a mother:
“We argue, I shout at the children, the roof leaks, my favorite plate gets broken. I sit up awake five nights running with a screaming puking baby cursing you that you can’t feed it—yes, that would be you, Calian. All this you gave me, Dellet. I was lost and alone and grieving. Here with you, I found my peace.”
Kanda’s struggle between her violent past and present domestic life also recalls Cold West, the Weird Western grimdark masterpiece by Clayton W. Snyder, which features a father haunted by a violent past that he can’t seem to escape, despite all the love he has for his family.
Anna Smith Spark brings Kanda’s struggles crushingly to life:
“I don’t trust myself to help my own children. I am death and killing. If I try to help them, I will kill them too.”
Ultimately, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is about appreciating the simple virtues of a peaceful family life in what is often a very dark world:
“Hug them tight, hold them tight bury your face in their hair, kiss them so they can’t see your face and your tears. Squeeze them tight so they can’t feel you shake. Breathe them in.”
Anna Smith Spark weaves layers of complexity into her characterization and worldbuilding, enhancing the immersive experience for the reader and providing opportunities to discover more details upon subsequent reads. Although sometimes disorienting with its blurred line between life and death, everything becomes clear by the end of the novel, culminating with a mic drop King of Thorns-style ending that left me with mouth agape, shouting to my family about what a brilliant novel I had just read.
A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is a triumph in every respect. As always, Anna Smith Spark writes with lyrical beauty and frank brutality. Her latest novel is a technical tour de force, giving a faithful representation of early dark mystical fantasy passed down through oral tradition, most notably The Mabinogion. But more importantly, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is an emotional masterpiece, crushing me as only Anna Smith Spark can.