“A wise man who’s ignored is about as effective as an idiot who’s listened to.”
Welcome to my review of the darkest, bleakest, book I have read so far this year: “The Court of Broken Knives”, Book One in “Empires of Dust”, by Anna Smith Spark.
If you have been reading my reviews this year, you will note that I have read some books that are considered quite nihilistic.
Among them, “Beyond Redemption” by Michael R. Fletcher, “The Darkness That Comes Before” by R. Scott Bakker, “Gardens of the Moon” by Steven Erickson, “Conqueror’s Blood by Zamil Akhtar, and “Seraphina’s Lament” by Sarah Chorn.
Well the aura of cynicism, pessimism, violence, and pain in this book, for me, trumps those other books. This book is unabashedly, uncompromisingly pure grimdark fantasy. It might actually be THE DARKEST BOOK I’VE EVER READ.
But, in saying all that, is it good? Actually, it’s quite brilliant, though one may find it very unsettling.
“The Court of Broken Knives” is set primarily in Spark’s fictional Sekemleth Empire. Sekemleth’s capitol city is Sorlost, a fabled city of incredible opulence and decadence. Yet this dissipation is leading to the inevitable downfall of the empire, and nothing seems capable of stopping the decline.
Enter the ambitious Lord Orhan, an influential member of the Empire’s aristocracy. Orhan is a visionary patriciate, and of course envisions himself at the top of the governing order, not the current Emperor, who seems woefully inadequate, at best. Orhan believes the empire is critically weak, and ripe for attack, and that the current sovereignty is incapable of defending the realm, so preoccupied they are with excess and having grown complacent and soft.
So, to solve this issue, Orhan decides to overthrow the Emperor and his cronies, by cold blooded murder. Orphan hires a gang of mercenaries from outside the Empire to sneak into Sorlost under false pretences, and assassinate the Emperor and nobility loyal to him. Then Orhan can help restore the magnificence of the Empire, or so the plan goes.
The leader of Orhan’s sellswords who will penetrate the city and carry out the gruesome plot is Tobias. Tobias is an veteran soldier, tough, pragmatic, and dependable. He’s pretty sure the mission is suicide, but he takes it on with courage and skill. His men trust him, don’t challenge his authority, and are inspired with him as the person in charge. Tobias is just the right man to lead the perilous mission, but he is challenged on many fronts, including the management of one particular recruit, named Marith.
Marith is seemingly a novice at soldiery, but he quickly shows immense bravery and promise, if not some odd, mysterious behaviour, that evolves into something much more foreboding. Unearthly handsome and of noble bearing, Marith hides dark secrets that pose a danger to all those who are in his orbit, including his mercenary comrades. He is tormented, a true psychopath, merciless, filled with a lust for blood, and he seems to be turning into someone even more sinister. Whatever he becomes, it could change the fate of not only Sorlost, but the world.
Even is his darkness, as noted, Marith is incredibly comely and charismatic. Many people find him irresistible. One of the people drawn to him, harbours a forbidden desire for the young man shrouded in darkness, and carries a lot of darkness of her own. That is High Priestess Thalia, titular head of the heinous religion of Sekemleth. The savage demands of Thalia’s position, and her religion, take their toll on her mental and emotional state. Because of this, in an unprecedented move, she seeks to flee the confines of her eminent role, which is an appointment for life. But her attraction to Marith draws her into something immeasurably more monstrous and depraved than she is trying to escape.
This book is a lush, character-driven dark fantasy, and the four aforementioned characters drive the plot of the novel. While they are fascinating and extremely well-drawn, they are four of the most detestable main characters one is going to meet in fantasy. They are horribly and seemingly irrevocably broken, and everyone around them pays the price for their emotional and psychological scars .
If one considers their upbringing and some of the trauma inflicted on them, and the general horrific and unforgiving world Spark has depicted that surrounds these people, as excusing some of their depraved behaviour, there might be some small measure of empathy for them. Otherwise, most readers will find them beneath contempt.
One will not find much comfort in the secondary characters either. Some of the other mercenaries, hired assassins, have some tiny redeeming qualities, but those characteristics are overwhelmed by the unsavoury attributes. The best that can be said about them is they have twisted senses of humour, and some sense of honour and duty to their chain of command, and perhaps some personal loyalty to each other.
This is the kind of book trigger warnings were created for. It is not that terrors are consistently written in graphic detail. Predominantly, they aren’t. It is more about the TYPE of terrors explored and the depth of the debased behaviour, WHO commits the atrocities, and the QUANTITY and quality of the disturbing themes. Human sacrifice – including of children, sexual violence, murder, genocide, torture, mutilation, unhealthy obsessions, mania, revenge, oppression, drug and alcohol addiction, mental disorders, depression, betrayal…you see where I am going here. The themes are extremely bleak, just as stark as our characters.
The world Spark has created may be charmless, but that does not mean the worldbuilding is not fantastic. The realms, cultures, religions, and history are very skillfully crafted, and the world seems fully realized, with hints of even more depth to Spark’s world waiting in the wings to be revealed in future novels. Fantastic beasts (including yes, DRAGONS) demons, lore, lineages, a magic system that is more teased than shown (and I love that) and more, the incredible settings described will resonate with the reader. Additionally, the maps which are part of the book are magnificent.
Perhaps what struck me most about the novel other than the misery of the world and the circumstances of the characters was the absolutely sensational writing. Spark has accomplished something truly memorable here with the style in which she writes. Traversing tenses, point-of-views, and interjecting phrases that read poetry, I truly meshed with the writing style of this book. It might not be for everyone, but for me it was mesmerizing. Spark uses repetition, inversion, plays on words in a fresh and inventive way that truly makes her world come vividly alive. This is a writer of considerable talent and gravitas.
“They line up in long rows, stretching away into the horizon. Rank upon rank of them. Gleaming silver armour, silver-gilt bronze over fine white cloth. The blood shows through the white and marks them as His soldiers, who will fight until they’ve lost every drop of blood in their bodies and beyond. They carry the long spear, the sarris…no shields. His armies do not need shields. Shields are to stop a man dying. It does not matter how many of them dies. Only that they kill as they do so. A shield is a coward thing. Their helments cover the eyes but leave the mouth bare, to bite and spit and scream. Ten times a thousand pais of eyes stare through white-tempered bronze. They wear red horse-hair plumes that nod in the wind. He likes His soldiers plumed like birds in His colours. Seen from above, standing on the walls of a city looking down at thme, they must look like a great field of flowers. Like the rose forests of Chathe must have looked before they burned them. They stand in perfect silcence, still as standing stones, still as teeth in a dead mouth.”
The plot is masterful, the action scenes are bloody and frenetic, and all the intrigue, skullduggery, twits, and violence will have the reader compulsively reading on to see what is coming next, with one eye closed in fear of how low things will sink next.
Grimdark has always been a challenging sub-genre of fantasy to define. Nonetheless, common definitions always seem to include 1)an absence of redeemable characters 2)unpredictability of the plot as these highly flawed characters make incalculable decisions that will continually shock the reader, and 3) an unforgiving world that breeds and supports the kind of environment that spawns, enables, and can also crush these same characters. In grimdark, there are no real winners, only damaged survivors, and a lot of collateral carnage along the way to some sort of victory.
I don’t know how this series is going to end, but I can’t foresee main characters such as what I have read in “The Court of Broken Knives” frankly being worthy of survival. The crimes the four primary players have committed by the end of the book are reprehensible enough for a whole city full of exclusively evil people. Some of them may have ambitions to re-make the world, but I see no way in how the world would benefit from their existence, and seeing those plans come to fruition.
The grimdark icing on the cake for this novel is that I see virtually no hope in this world, nor for any positive outcome for these characters. I believe it is this complete lack of hope in the book, in my opinion, that has set “The Court of Broken Knives” apart from the other top dark fantasy novels I have read, in terms of its “darkness” factor. Nary a glimmer of optimism to be found here.
If your little grimdark soul is dancing with glee at the prospect of this sort of fare, look no further, this is your book!
The novel is outstanding, and I will be reading everything that Spark writes – consider me hooked. Five luminous stars! A true grimdark masterpiece.
And yes, I can definitively say, as I hope I have adequately illustrated here, “The Court of Broken Knives” IS the darkest fantasy book I’ve ever read.