Both Sides of the Canvas are Beautiful
The Court of Broken Knives
by Anna Smith Spark
“The old songs, the laments for dead heroes. We drink and fight and kill and die.”―
Anna Smith Spark, The Court of Broken Knives
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.
Wow, The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark was an interesting, unique book! I can genuinely say I’ve never read anything quite like it. And if I’m completely honest, it took me around 50 or 60 pages to fully get into it despite its claws already starting to grab hold of me.
I can’t really put my finger on it but I think it may be a case of adjusting to the style, which is quite different from many other fantasy books. There are changes from past to present tense, from third to first-person perspectives (something I actually really came to like), and the prose can often have a manic, visceral immediacy to it that may not be for everyone. Sometimes this can make you ask, “Wait a minute, what just happened!?” On the whole though, this gives a fast paced, disorientating barrage that works perfectly during conflict – the death, dirt, blood and filth of battle laid bare; no sugarcoating.
Smith Spark often achieves this effect through repetitive use of language and short sharp sentences. Whilst this might seem jarring to some readers, I find this is a particularly successful technique in really getting across that feeling of being part of the action and your mind racing from one danger to another, focussing on the immediate aspects of the fight and what must be done to survive.
She interchanges this with beautiful descriptions, her own unique prose always shining brightly. It was a joy to read at times, to experience her style. When the mercenaries of our story first enter Sorlost (the predominant city and location of the book) I no-word-of-a-lie re-read the whole section. It gave me such a vivid picture of this cultural melting pot of a city and in less than two pages sparked my imagination for the way the whole city looked and felt.
“A crowd of thousands, hair and skin every possible colour, clothing bright and dark and pale as water, glittering with gold. Colour and texture and beauty roaring in the eyes. Shouts in every language, birdsong and music, dogs barking, bray of asses, buzz of flies, bleating of goats.
Sweat and incense, spice and honey, wood smoke and rot and shit and vomit and piss. Vast buildings, white marble, yellow brickwork, gilt wood, red paint. Carved porticoes and stone columns and velvet awnings and jewelled domes. Clockwork toys and paper flowers and silk carpets and caged birds and silver jewellery and roast meat.
The decaying heart of a decayed empire. Sorlost.”
It’s my favourite city from a fantasy book so far and so intriguing, so well-described, vibrant, diverse, nuanced, grim, colourful, distinguished, unique, historic, exciting. It has a real Middle Eastern feel to it, with hints of Rome, Cairo, Marrakech, Constantinople, Tenochtitlan.
So what’s actually driving this story, you ask? Well, we get plenty of interesting worldbuilding in which we get a real feel for the continent of Irlast and the events surrounding the political manoeuverings of the synopsis, though it’s primarily a character-driven book. And I have to take my hat off to Anna; she kept me immersed in a character-driven book when those characters are just so utterly deplorable. I don’t think I warmed to a single one, yet I was bound to their fates. An ambitious politician, a high priestess, a mysterious & very damaged young man and a mercenary. If you’re looking for a valiant hero to root for, the Queen of Grimdark isn’t the author to give them to you. All these POVs however just keep you wanting more.
The story switches between these characters which like many multiple POV stories gives a nice change of pace or intensity at times and suits my personal reading preference. I also liked that there was a mixture of long and short chapters – sometimes an event needed to be fully described, others it was more effective to hit you with short and direct, two or three pages, BAM! Digest that.
If there are any of these characters to meekly latch onto as someone we might want to triumph, Tobias probably takes my vote. There is a moral compass somewhere, vaguely underneath the self-preservation and greed and he at least tries to do the right thing on a very base level. Would you really expect a completely selfless character in charge of a group of mercenaries, though?
The man who hires this mercenary band – Orhan – takes many of the slower chapters. Slow doesn’t mean boring; his chapters help to build the foundations underlying the story and layer on the depth of our understanding of Sorlost and the Empire. Like many who do bad things in the name of progress, he believes the end will justify the means. This gives him his own justification to be ruthless when there are no real guarantees his will be the right path.
Thalia is the High Priestess of The Lord of Living and Dying. There are definite Aztec parallels to her religion and the part it plays in the society of Sorlost. Ultimately as High Priestess she carries out some sickening acts, though they are expected of her. Should we sympathise because her actions are expected by society, because she’s been brought up to carry them out in the name of her Lord? I personally had a hard time empathising with a character who is able to sacrifice small children in a blind show of faith.
These characters aren’t without their positive traits and you might argue that they aren’t necessarily completely bad – two of them even think what they’re doing will benefit the wider population. You might say they are human beings doing what they can to survive in a harsh world, a product of their environment.
The last character to be mentioned, Marith, I have no words of mitigation for. I hate him. Yet the chapters that feature him are my favourite. I even started out liking him. A shy lad amongst a mercenary company. One brave enough to go up against a dragon. Then it’s downhill in my estimation throughout, eventually going beyond a chance of redemption. I spent most of the book wishing for a grisly and painful end for Marith. He’s an absolute prick to put it mildly. There could be no revelation from his past that could make me support him. That his chapters are often the most engrossing is praise indeed for the writing and the way Anna is able to provoke these emotions from the reader.
I won’t finish the review by brushing over the fact that yes, I did mention a dragon. In fact there is more than one dragon in this book. The beast that appears at the start of the book really sticks in the mind though, and this sequence is the perfect showcase for the vivid, distinctive prose aswell as the grit and grime, emotion and ferocity of the storytelling that Anna Smith Spark has expertly crafted, leaving me quite lost for words on a number of occasions.
Her canvas is carefully painted with delicate brush strokes of colour and imagination; the other side smeared with blood, scorched with flame, splattered with guts, bone and ash.
Both sides of the canvas are beautiful.