SE rating: 5 of 5 stars
Anna Smith Spark's The Court of Broken Knives is epic, grim, and filled with amoral characters; and its delivered with an unconventional writing style. It worked for me, since I value and enjoy books that deviate from the norm; the oddly poetic style became familiar as if I was listening to the author narrate. This kicks off a trilogy, the last of which is due out this Fall:
Empires of Dust
(1) The Court of Broken Knives
(2) The Tower of Living and Dying
(3) The House of Sacrifice (August 2019)
A polarizing writing style supported by themes of death and rebirth: Anna Smith Spark opens with a disorienting dream-like chapter that proves to be a mix of flashback and drug induced hallucination. Then the sequence continues with fragmented sentences, one word sentences, and sentences lacking subjects. Excerpts capture this well (below).
Chapters switch across multiple perspectives, shifting in tense, and person (first and third). It had the potential to be entirely incoherent, but there is consistency across all this, and a uniting story that keeps it glued together.
Expect some jarring prose that is actually well organized. The beginning offers a lot of conflict (person vs. person, person vs family, person vs self, other-person vs a different group, etc.), but these all converge. The glue holding all together is the replaying of history; readers are watching a grand struggle replay itself: Amrath's bloodline (death embodied) fighting the city of Sorlost (the city where life & death are balanced). What resonated with me was the the "Beauty in Death" theme which becomes real via Marith.
Grim & nontraditional content: If the style doesn't throw you, the grim content might. However, the author is "the Queen of Grimdark" and is targeting dark fantasy readers. The Court of Broken Knives is full of characters who you'll find broken, despicable, but you may end up cheering for them anyway because you'll want to see their potential realized. Several gay and bisexual pairings are becoming the norm now, and Smith dishes up several couples that read very accessible (this is not a romance book).
Four characters become most prominent:
Marith Altrersyr : He's a "hatha" (drug) addict with demonic inner potential. He inspires death on a huge scale, has a penchant for murdering and killing his loved ones. He is haunted by some of these experiences, and inspired by others.
Tobias: He's a sub-leader of a crew of mercenaries with a love-hate relationship with Marith.
Thalia: She's a high priestess and an empathetic woman, who is also accustomed to killing innocents to maintain the living/dying balance expressed via the customs of the God Tanis and City of Sorlost.
Orhan: He's a politician whose calm demeanor belies his desire to take over the city.
1) Regarding the titular Court of Broken Knives (within Sorlost):
“They strolled down the wide sweep of Sunfall and crossed the Court of the Broken Knife. A single pale light flickered beneath the great statue in the centre of the square, too small in the dark. A woman sat beside it, weeping quietly. It was a place where someone was always weeping. The statue was so old the man it depicted had no name or face, the stone worn by wind and rain to a leprous froth tracing out the ghost of a figure in breastplate and cloak. A king. A soldier. A mage lord. An enemy. Even in the old poems, it had no face and no story and no name. Eyeless, it stared up and outward, seeing things that no man living had ever seen. In its right hand the broken knife pointed downwards, stabbing at empty air. In its left hand it raised something aloft, in triumph or anger or despair. A woman’s head. A helmet. A bunch of flowers. It was impossible to tell.”
2) Example writing style:
"A dead dragon is a very large thing. Tobias stared at it for a long time. Felt regret, almost. It was beautiful in its way. Wild. Utterly bloody wild. No wisdom in those eyes. Wild freedom and the delight in killing. An immovable force, like a mountain or a storm cloud. A death thing. A beautiful death, though. Imagine saying that to [character]’s family: he was killed fighting dragon. He was killed fighting a dragon. A dragon killed him. A dragon. Like saying he died fighting a god."
3) Beauty and Death
: "Marith swerved his horse toward her. His face was rapturous. Ecstatic. So beautiful her heart leaped. He raised his sword and for a moment she thought he would kill her, and for a moment she thought she would welcome it if he did. So beautiful and perfect his face. So joyous and radiant his smile."
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