Book Review: The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Empires of Dust
Publisher: Orbit (August 15, 2017)
Length: 512 pages
The Court of Broken Knives is unlikely to shatter any molds in the grimdark genre, but I do have to give it credit for checking off all the right boxes and pushing all my right buttons. Also, the writing is exquisite, making it hard to believe this is Anna Smith Spark’s debut as it’s so incredibly polished and well done.
I do worry, however, that prospective readers might pick up this novel dismiss it almost right away because of its first chapter. There’s a pervasive belief about the fantasy genre these days that “grimdark” is all about the violence, nihilism, amoralism, and a lot of piss, blood, shit thrown in along with all the killing and dying. While, sure, those are the common features of many works of grimdark, I would argue that there’s also a lot more to it than that. Unfortunately, a lot new authors also tend to fall into the trap, trying to score points by shamelessly resorting to shock value when their main concern should be developing their characters and story, regardless of the desire to include as many examples of brutal violence, graphic sex, profanity, and explicit descriptions of bodily fluids as possible.
Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, not long before I started The Court of Broken Knives, I’d just come from another debut grimdark that I would described as edgy-for-the-sake-of-being edgy. And when I was reading the opening pages of this, there was that brief period of annoyance where I thought for sure I was strapping myself in for yet another one.
But thankfully, I was wrong. Yes, the book does begin with a bloody battle and lots of DEATH! DEATH! DEATH! Eventually though, we move beyond that into the meat of the story, following a rough crew of mercenaries as they close upon their destiny of Sorlost, the Sekemleth Empire’s seat of power. The truth of their mission will be revealed soon enough, but for now, let’s take a look at the key players. Nervous and inexperienced, Marith is the new recruit, a young Adonis with the face of an angel and a dark secret in his blood. Tobias is his squad captain, a thoughtful but pragmatic leader who keeps his purpose close to this heart and his eye on the prize.
But the mercenaries are just a small piece of the big picture—the muscle behind the brain, so to speak. They follow the orders of Orhann Emmereth, a powerful nobleman and counselor to the Emperor. A hardened and jaded politician, Orhann fears for the future of the Sekemleth Empire and believes that doom will come to them all come unless he can bring about a new leader to rise from the ashes of the old. It is he who has hired Tobias and his mercenaries, tasking them to kill the Emperor and everyone else in his court. Meanwhile, in the nearby temple in Sorlost, much of the power also rests in the hands of a fourth major character. Thalia is the High Priestess of the empire’s rather unusual and cruel religion whose god demands the sacrifice of children, and as the head of the order, it is she who must carry out these difficult ritualistic killings.
From these four perspectives, the author weaves a tale of intrigue, passion, and betrayal about the complexities of human nature and war. Characterization is the real standout here, exploring the different interaction between the members of this eclectic cast. Every one of them is a unique and multi-faceted individual, complete with their own set of quirks and flaws. In particular, I found Orhann and Thalia’s storylines to be the most intriguing, for both are conflicted characters who are in positions of influence and yet are also victims of their own circumstances. Tired and cynical, Orhann may have seen it all in his long career as a politician, but it still wouldn’t be fair to call him a bad or callous man. If anything, he cares too much. Despite the troubles in his personal life, he strives to be the loving husband and soon-to-be father, and any corrupt or treasonous decisions he makes, he does it because he truly believes he is doing it for the good of the empire.
Then, of course, we have Thalia, a complicated woman who carries on with her grisly work with child sacrifices as she knows she must. But there is also a spark of defiance there, fueled by the knowledge of the fate that awaits her at the end of her tenure as High Priestess. Curiously, hers is the only perspective we get in first-person, a strange choice by the author. Short as they were though, Thalia’s chapters do give readers deeper insight into her character and personality. She goes on to develop an unexpected romance with Marith, a grand love affair that really should deserve a paragraph all on its own, though it’s probably best to leave the best parts as a surprise. Suffice it to say that they are not your typical fictional couple, and I wouldn’t go in expecting anything you’d usually get from a more traditional romance.
Likewise, I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, because so much of the joy in reading this book was the experience of peeling back its layers and discovering its secrets. What I can tell you is that it is more than the sum of its parts, and the plot follows a slow-burn approach that gradually builds to a violent climax. To wit, A Court of Broken Knives wasn’t a book that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time, but neither was I ever bored. And although I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking by any means, this is still a very solid and well put-together debut. Certainly, it ended up giving me a lot more than I expected, and I would not hesitate to recommend it if your predilections run to grimdark or dark fantasy. Anna Smith Spark is an author to watch, and I would not hesitate to pick up the next book in the series.