The old songs, the laments for dead heroes. We drink and fight and kill and die.
I like to try and give a brief, spoiler free synopsis at the start of my reviews; to give you potential readers an idea if this is the kind of story you’d like.
But I don’t think I’m capable of doing that here, without falling miserably short. I tend to avoid blurbs as I don’t like my perception to be influenced in any way, but going back and reading them now they don’t do the book justice. They give some facts about the plot and leave some mystery about some characters… but it’s all so stark and… normal.
This book isn’t normal.
Let’s attempt some normality to begin with. It’s a story with political intrigue at its heart, with characters attempting to shift and claim power through whatever means they deem necessary. Characters escaping their pasts, escaping their futures; trying to create new ones.
I’m being vague. There’s too much to give away.
Let’s find some safer ground.
Anna Smith Spark’s writing is something else; it is utterly unique and distinctive, I haven’t come across anything like this in quite some time, at least not in fantasy.
The narrative has multiple points of view, and the narrative or writing style changes for each. For instance, the novel opens on a battle scene and her writing is gory; with short, stabbing sentences. We are flung straight into the fray of battle, not knowing who is fighting who or why or even who the character is; effectively reflecting the exhaustion and confusion of the character himself. The language is childlike and simplistic, conveying the character’s awe and giving a sense of fairy tale mysticism to the figure of Amrath. Characters who are well educated carry deeper narratives, being more reflective upon themselves and their actions, or being more observant and descriptive of their surroundings depending on their personalities. Other characters are more to the point, are sparing with their words and snap lines out like they’re constantly on edge. It’s beautifully subtle yet extremely effective.
The writing is immediately poetic and this carries throughout. Her language and imagery therefore is incredibly evocative, every word seeming to be expertly placed to convey exactly what she wanted. This line, for example, particularly struck me:
“Deep fetid marsh rot snot shit filth green.”
That’s it. But it’s the best description for a dragon I have ever read.
This shift between different points of view, coupled with a glorious disregard for exposition, could be off putting for some to begin with. Personally, I loved it. The characters knew what they were about, they didn’t need to waste their time explaining that to me. Having finished the book, I’m still not sure how various characters in Sorlost are connected to each other; but that’s the point, isn’t it? They’re big, powerful, ancient families that intermarried for connections and political gains and it’s a big, complicated mire. But they’re also not important in the grand scheme of things.
Anna Smith Spark’s world building is intricate and features some interesting mirrors to our own. Grudges held over a thousand years, stories told and retold down the generations. I always wonder when people start listing references and influences whether they’re simply reading too much into something, but I found I couldn’t help myself here. There were echoes of ancient empires, Byzantium and Persian. The glories of ancient emperors. There were flavours of forgotten giants, Ozymandias abandoned in the desert; paired with what even felt like Welsh legends – the tale of Myrddin Emrys, son of a demon, and the dragons of Dinas Emrys; the tale of Cantre’r Gwaelod, a kingdom drowned by the sea save for its king. These layers of familiarity called to something within me, lent credence and a borrowed history to the world unfolding before me.
Usually in any novel, plot and characters are pivotal and I haven’t discussed much of either so far. This is a grimdark fantasy; Anna Smith Spark is not afraid to explore the horrible depths her characters will go to. But as ever with grimdark, there is a realism to the characters that you don’t always find in general fantasy. There are far more shades in this spectrum to delve into; for example I can’t remember reading a character with a controlling addiction such as features in this book, and it is utterly and heart wrenchingly believable. Grimdark doesn’t always give you what you want, The Court of Broken Knives is no exception.
And yet I couldn’t describe it as bleak; I am still hoping now, after I’ve turned the last page, nursing the weak flame until The Tower of Living and Dying comes out. There is a very well devised balance between resolution and open endings; the plot feels secondary to the word craft (this book is a work of art), yet it still surprised me and felt intricate enough to keep me interested and second guessing. And there’s plenty to make me eager for the next installment.
Absolutely recommend if you enjoy evocative writing and multi-layered plots.
Please go read this compelling book and marvel in its beauty.
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