“New boy Marith. Staring at the dragon like a man stares at his own death.”
The Court of Broken Knives established Anna Smith Spark as the Queen of Grimdark, and for good reason. This is grimdark fantasy of the highest caliber, with four complex lead characters in a bleak and cruel world.
Tobias is a grizzled mercenary fighter leading his crew across the desert toward the legendary city of Sorlost, capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Marith is a charismatic but dangerous new recruit in Tobias’s company, with plenty of secrets in his troubled past. Meanwhile in Sorlost, the nobleman Orhan is scheming to overthrow the Emperor and install himself as ruler, and the high priestess Thalia seeks escape from her life of isolation.
While there is plenty of gray morality represented in each of the four lead protagonists, I especially love seeing how Anna Smith Spark sows the seeds of darkness in Marith, who is well aware of the evil lurking inside himself:
“Marith twisted in her arms. Don’t pray for me. Don’t you dare pray for me. Don’t you know what I am, by now? Things screamed in the distance. Shadows crawling in his eyes and in his skin. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill us all. But she held him and murmured her prayers in a voice like candle flames.”
Thalia’s character development is another highlight of the book. While most of The Court of Broken Knives is told using third-person narration, the story switches to first-person for Thalia, giving extra emotional impact to each of her point-of-view chapters.
Anna Smith Spark’s sparse but elegant writing style is the perfect vehicle for delivering this grimdark tale, with many darkly poetic moments throughout. The brutal, indiscriminate killing of ordinary soldiers is repugnant, yet some characters find a sick beauty in all the slaughter. Smith Spark doesn’t hold back with her descriptions of the carnage and the extreme emotions that bounce between horror and sick delight. The rhythm and tonality of her prose is always the perfect match for each of the scenes in the novel.
Anna Smith Spark has a cinematic way of describing her settings. The imagery of sand is a particularly powerful one in this desert environment. While someone can build a magnificent sandcastle, full of detail and wonder, it doesn’t take much for the wind to erode it all away, leaving no trace of its former glory. The same may be true for Sorlost, the formerly decadent capital of an empire on the decline:
“This is Sorlost, the eternal, the Golden City. The most beautiful, the first, the last. The undying. The unconquered. The unconquerable. The mummified heart of an empire of dust and desert villages, half forgotten by half the world.”
In hindsight, I’d argue that Anna Smith Spark effectively defined a new subgenre of literary grimdark fantasy with her 2017 publication of The Court of Broken Knives, which she has continued to pursue and refine in her more recent work.
Anna Smith Spark finds beauty in decay through her lyrical writing: The Court of Broken Knives is simultaneously brutal and exquisite, absolutely a must-read for grimdark fans and anyone who appreciates complex, character-driven fantasy. The Empires of Dust trilogy continues with Book Two, The Tower of Living and Dying.
Please check out my interview with Anna Smith Spark and my other reviews of her recent books: