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The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith-Spark

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith-Spark
Book Name: The Court of Broken Knives
Author: Anna Smith-Spark
Publisher(s): Orbit (US) Harper Voyager (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Release Date: August 15, 2017 (US) June 29, 2017 (UK)

As I recall, the first rumours I heard of the book that became The Court of Broken Knives was seeing the author’s lament on social media that an agent had found it too brutal, too gory, too grimdark to contemplate representing it. Nonetheless – as has happened to so many authors – one agent’s poison is another agent’s meat and Anna Smith-Spark moved on and not only got representation but a publishing contract.

The impression that the book was a blood fest lingered in my memory and was reinforced by the opening chapter full of viscerally described evisceration as an unnamed combatant swam in a lake of gore. After that opening, however, the book gathers up more reassuring story elements in a tale that is in places raw, yet still powerfully and entertainingly told.

We meet a company of mercenaries crossing a desert on a secret mission to the decayed capital of a once magnificent empire. This set-up gives Smith-Spark ample opportunity to flex her skills at worldbuilding and character development as she flicks between four key points of view within and beyond the city of Sorlost the Golden.

The mercenaries are well fleshed out, maintaining a lively and credible banter that put me in mind of the Syldoon soldiers from Jeff Salyards’ Bloodsounder trilogy. Like captain Braylar Kilcoin’s troop they have in their midst a raw recruit, Marith who appears to be itching for a purpose in life and a grizzled veteran, Tobias, who has seen it all before and expects to see it all again. It is hardly a spoiler to say that – like most secret missions in fantasy books since nine walkers first set out from Rivendell – things don’t go entirely according to plan. However, Smith-Spark still manages to surprise with the challenges generated both from within and without of the mercenary company, challenges which collectively threaten much more than Tobias’s retirement plans.

The inhabitants and culture of Sorlost, capital of the Sekemleth Empire, are exquisitely rendered through the eyes of Orhan a noble of status, wealth, and many frustrations, and through Talya High Priestess and the most holy woman in the whole continent despite, or perhaps because of never having gone beyond the temple doors.

Sorlost lies insulated from surrounding potential foes by a desert, much as Switzerland was protected through two European wars by its mountains. The city-empire’s power has waned, however, consumed by internal corruption and decadence. Desperate political measures are called for. But beneath the mundanities of foreign policy and the routine nastiness of court intrigue, there is a darker core to the empire’s culture – reminiscent of the rumoured dark heart to Carthage, or the sacrifices made by the Incas and Aztecs. The religion of Great Tanis, the Lord of Living and Dying, is one that embraces death as readily as it embraces life. The people offer themselves up for the knife – but each finds at the last that death is not easy.

It is in those elements of human sacrifice (recorded but not described) and the revelling in battle blood lust that Smith-Spark’s debut pushes most firmly at the boundaries of grimdarkness. The book is nonetheless well crafted. The writing feels deliberately raw in places, for example where the opening subject to a sentence is missed out giving a breathy urgency to the action, “Glanced at the map and began to walk hurriedly.” or “Could probably handle a young woman barely able to walk.”

It’s a device I last saw in Lucas Thorn’s Revenge of the Elf, though Smith-Spark uses it more sparingly. Smith-Spark takes other calculated liberties with language, though – perhaps because of this – there were a couple of points where it seemed an editor had missed correcting an error of sense.

Smith-Spark’s style, like her story stretches the envelope of conventions. Some points of view are present tense first person, most are third person past tense limited, but it still shakes up the reader’s awareness of what is flashback and what is genuinely present, of what is core story and of what might at first be mistaken for a travelogue style exposition.

The writing is skilful, the descriptions evocative – particularly of place and people, the dialogue sparks entertainingly, while the plot twists, turns and branches sinuously. As I tried to track the crosses and double crosses I was reminded of Pirates of the Caribbean – a story where the only person each character could trust was their own self (and even then one couldn’t be too sure). As I watched the tale unfold a few other associations fired off in my mind. Stories from history that – in the bloody ruin generated by a clash of cultures and personalities – might exchange a nod of familiarity with The Court of Broken Knives, tales such as Anthony and Cleopatra or Bonnie and Clyde.

The book is compelling and well-paced. I devoured, the last two thirds or so in a single day, and an acceleration in reading speed is always a good sign in a book. Smith-Spark embraces diversity in a way that is neither forced nor token – with gay characters given equal treatment both in their prominence in the storyline and their exposure to risk in which – to be honest – an awful lot of people die. No really, an awful lot of people, not everyone, but still a couple of Red Weddings’ worth at least.

What stopped me short of giving it ten stars is that, for all the complexities of the swirling subplots, the central plot and driving force for the protagonist appears to be a simple brutal one, not so much of power, or glory, as of destruction. Graham Greene wrote a short story “The Destructors” about a bunch of teenage vandals conspiring to demolish an old man’s home. I remember watching the TV adaptation of it in the 1970s. One premise expressed within the story was that destruction is a form of creation – of imagining something other than it is and then creating that otherness. Whether or not one agrees with that (I don’t), it made for a compelling and enthralling short story/TV play.

In some ways Smith-Spark brings that same premise to The Court of Broken Knives. Some might find the bleakness of the central strand running through and bookending the story a little overpowering. Nonetheless this is an innovative and entertaining debut, powerfully written and well worth exploring.


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