Review: The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
Grimdark gets a reputation from some circles as being style over substance at times. By adding a little grit and consequence to a swords and sorcery adventure, the story takes on a new life, a set of fresh clothes – albeit fresh clothes covered in blood, dirt and angst.
The Court of Broken Knives and its author Anna Smith Spark have absolutely embraced the Grimdark moniker, but the book is really something more than a fresh dressing of a quest narrative.
Generations after the great crusade, a mercenary company comes to Sorlost, the last city to remain unconquered by Amrath, leader of that crusade, the dragon descended butcher of the world. The mercenaries have been hired by a cadre of city nobles, intent on wrecking the balance of power within the city and advancing themselves to lead a new, vigorous regime before the decadence of its current hegemony brings their great city to ruin.
The opening of Smith Spark’s novel is a chapter of dazzling imagery, returning us to the crusade of Amrath. The writing can be compared to Le Guin’s 1973 short story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ long regarded as a classic of its time. There is a moving visual image to both narratives, as if the writers are attempting to paint a scene in motion. Smith Spark read the scene many times at conventions, and it remains both captivating and arresting, depicting the fragile and tragic power of the world’s most powerful human as he brings the sword to anyone who stands in his way.
By comparison, chapter 2 is a gritty crash into the dirt. On first reading, this contrast lost me. Going from one to the other was a reach too far and I couldn’t connect with the new characters, Tobias, Alxine, Marith, Rett and Emit, as they struggled to make their way across the desert with the other members of their mercenary company.
However, as the story develops, you realise why this contrast as essential. Marith is the descendant of Amrath. Smith Spark uses her dazzling imagery toolkit to carefully portray him in flashes, so we see what he could be – an Antony, broken by his indulgences and self-centredness. In those flashes, we see what he might have been, but the baggage is always there and always in the mind of the reader as the events of the story play out.
Another aspect of the book that is worthy of highlighting is the way Smith Spark has constructed the society of Sorlost. The term ‘worldbuilding’ is used so much in genre writing these days and really doesn’t reflect the nature of a writer’s work to create a believable city culture for the reader to immerse themselves in. In Sorlost, we have a decadent sun-baked political mess that has been laid out for us with carefully managed projections. Smith Spark ensures we only see what we need to see but entices us to engage our own imaginations as well. The way in which the cruelty of the society is normalised gives it a believable edge and makes the story step beyond any accusations of being fantasy with a grimdark veneer. This is grim. This is dark. Hope is fleeting and all meaningful choices have awful consequences.
In some ways, Smith Spark’s Sorlost could be imagined as Tolkien’s East and South – the land of Rhun or Harad. The story being told is an ancillary one, not as yet a world shaping narrative like the ring quest or the equivalent in this fantasy. The harsh lands depicted here are equally as vibrant to the reader and the outcome of the story refreshingly uncertain. By beginning in this way, the writer allows herself time to establish the backdrop against which these events play out, which will help with the subsequent novels.
The battles of The Court of Broken Knives are refreshingly different in style. There is little sense of the strategic or tactical consideration that dissolves into desperate chaos that has become the fantasy blueprint. Instead, Smith Spark maintains the themes of abstraction and chaos throughout. The whirling maelstrom of war is a living, writhing thing, not a series of objectives and plans. Armies are monsters, ravenous things that devour and consume. When they clash, they pick one another to pieces.
Similarly, Smith Spark’s use of Mages and magic is not systemised to distraction as other writers might do. There are wizards in this world. They are dangerous and powerful. There are moments where our principle characters fight them. These are fearful moments, adding to the colourful fantasy of the fiction, rather than diverting into some pseudo instruction manual.
As a protagonist, Marith is difficult to like or identify with. In The Sovereign Stone Trilogy, Weis and Hickman gave us Dagnarius, a flawed character whose flashes of humanity gave the reader hope that he might be turned from his path. Marith is a creature cut from similar cloth, but you never have a sense he will change direction. The scenes of redemption are like oases, moments of delusion for a man doomed by his own nature, a light that burns far too bright for the world he inhabits.
By contrast, Orhan, the Sorlost politician, is a game player out of his depth. After taking his chance, he gains what he was looking for, but is living from moment to moment. He continually takes risks with who he trusts, and you never get the sense that he has control over events, even as he tries to shape the future of Sorlost.
Thalia’s character is both simple and complex. Her life as high priestess of Tanis will end when the next chosen child reaches the required age to assume her duties, and when the girl is discovered, in the traditional process of testing and reincarnation, Thalia knows her days are coming to an end. In the middle of a revolt, she acts to survive and flees the city. Thereafter, a chance encounter sees her adrift, trying to make sense of life outside the temple. She is seemingly persuaded by Marith’s illusionary dream of an idyllic future for them both, but you sense she is wise to the flaws of this delusion even as she allows herself to be seduced by it.
A fourth perspective is offered by Tobias, the mercenary company leader, who occasionally leads the narrative as well. He is perhaps the most interesting as he doesn’t even reach towards being an archetype, making decisions that are clearly rationale and pragmatic, but that refuse to conform to a trope or type. Of all the characters in Smith Spark’s novel, I find him the most interesting.
Events play out to their conclusion, resolving some of the conflicts presented in the book, but also setting up what will come in the rest of the trilogy. This is tragic, epic, fantasy, writ large. If that is Grimdark, then perhaps the qualities of the subgenre need reassessing? It is certainly not the Grimdark being written by those who would be considered to be Smith Spark’s contemporaries. Both Joe Abercrombie and Ed Mcdonald incorporate tragedy into their work, but not in the classic sense. Smith Spark is drawing from Sophocles and Aristotle, rather than Vogler or Campbell.
This is perhaps why, in part, the story of Marith is difficult to enjoy in the same way a reader might enjoy Frodo’s journey, or any other traditional quest narrative. We do not identify with Marith in the same way we might with a more humane protagonist. We aren’t really supposed to. At least part of his heritage comes from legend – something alien that refuses to reconcile itself with the human values we prize. Marith is not going to be redeemed, instead we are watching him evolve into the monster he is going to become. Any comparison with Tolkien’s hobbit becomes more useful if you examined Frodo without Sam and after the ring has corrupted him. It is that sense of dread, with fleeting moments of humanity, often seen and reinterpreted through Thalia’s eyes. This creates a distance between the story and the reader, but also gives the book a longevity that others of its time are unlikely to have.
Reviews of The Court of Broken Knives make for an interesting read. This is an experimental novel with an array of writing techniques employed, always with a clear reason and rationale behind them. Readers who are unable to stretch themselves to accept this, may struggle, but that is not a deficiency of the writing, the story, or anything else contained between the front and back cover of this book. As it stretches the reader, it reveals the limitations of a genre that looks in the mirror a little too much and doesn’t reach out to embrace ideas and concepts that are readily available in other aspects of literature.
By Allen Stroud