The Court Of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

The Blurb On The Back:

Shadows.  Sorrow. Death.

Something’s coming.

 

We need to be read.

And yes.  That does mean blood.

 

We’re too weak.  The way we are.  Sitting on our piles of gold pretending nothing exists beyond our walls.

We’re too far gone for anything else. 

In the richest empire the world has ever known, the capital city of Sorlost stands eternal, or so it believes …

Decadence has become the true ruler, blinding its inhabitants to their decay.  The empire is weak and, haunted by dreams of its demise, Lord Orhan Emmereth has decided to act.

On his orders, a company of mercenaries will cross the desert to reach the city of Sorlost.  Once inside, they have one mission: assassinate the Emperor and all who serve him.

The mission is suicide but Marith is ready to die. He is running away from a shame and grief, which only the weight of a knife in his hand can banish.

Little does Marith know that his destiny awaits in the Golden City of Sorlost.  A destiny beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Lord Orhan Emmereth is a High Lord of the Sekemleth Empire, a trusted adviser to the Ever Living Askemlene Emperor and part of the elite residing in its capital city Sorlost, famed for its beauty and riches. He also knows that the Sekemleth Empire is doomed.  The Emperor is a weak-minded fool, dominated by his Secretary and Sorloth’s defences are poor, its walls cracking, its armies small and complacent such that rival kingdoms such as the Immish and the Chathe are circling, waiting for their chance to strike.  As a result, Orhan has entered into a conspiracy with a number of other High Lords to assassinate the Emperor, the Secretary and his faction and have a replacement Emperor installed who they can control.

Marith is part of the group of mercenaries engaged by Orhan to do his dirty work.  Commanded by experienced soldier Tobias, Marith doesn’t much care what he’s doing or where he’s going.  Exiled for committing an unforgiveable crime, he’s trying to run from his own past – drowning his grief and self-hated in wine and drugs – but Marith has been anointed by a destiny that he cannot escape.

Thalia is High Priestess of the Great Tanith the Lord of Living and Dying and since being abandoned as a baby, has spent her whole life in the Temple in Sorlost.  Her life is dictated by her duty and the rites of her God, which she knows will continue only until such time as her successor is identified by Tanith, and her privilege separates her from the other priestesses.  But Orhan’s plot has ramifications for her own life, and soon she will be forced to leave everything she’s ever known …

Anna Smith Spark’s debut epic fantasy (the first in a trilogy) is a nihilistic grimdark affair that features vivid description and world-building but which is hampered by characters who are, for the most part, self-absorbed, unpleasant and petulant, an insta-love romance that made me roll my eyes and a meandering plot that lacked drive such that I will not be reading on (although the vivid descriptions mean I would check out Spark’s other work).

The most interesting parts of the book are those that revolve around Orhan who, for me, was the most interesting in the book. Driven by a sense of duty to the Empire, he’s a complicated character who knows the stakes if his plot fails.  Orhan’s homosexuality is a key part of who he is and I enjoyed how it informs his relationship with ex-lover Darath and his marriage to Bilale (the daughter of a rich noble family whose facial disfigurement lead to her marriage of convenience to Orhan), although I would have liked more of a sense of who Bilale was and how she viewed Orhan and Darath as this only really starts to come through towards the end of the book.

It’s through Orhan that the reader learns more of the background to this world and to the rise and decline of the Sekemleth Empire and how it currently operates.  Spark has a strong eye for vivid detail and I enjoyed the depiction of Sorloth, its geography and architecture, and the different political factions within its walls and I’d started this book expecting and hoping for a GAME OF THRONES style mix of real politick and machinations.  However, there’s little depth to the politics here with many key conspiratorial decisions happening off-page and it’s further hampered by the fact that the other High Lords are quite samey, such that I had difficulty keeping track of who was who, meaning that I never really cared about the different factions or their actions/reactions.  Even Orhan’s moral qualms about dispatching a former co-conspirator have little impact given that we barely see the two of them together to establish the relationship.

This slightness to the side characters is one that permeates the book.  In the case of the Marith and Thalia storylines, it makes for a lot of disposable characters who Spark callously despatches but the lack of depth means it’s difficult to care about them.  This is particularly the case with Thalia who is required to grotesquely punish a priestess who has made a catastrophic error and supposedly suffers moral qualms about it because the two grew up together but with little page time to establish their relationship, I just didn’t believe it and, worse, didn’t care. Similarly, Marith’s fellow mercenaries such as Rate and Alxine are so broadly sketched that I had difficulty keeping track of who was who (and which has the effect of deadening a key scene where Marith turns on one, rather than carrying the shock value that Spark seems to be going for).  The one exception to this is Tobias, the weathered platoon leader who sees Marith for what he is and cares for but is pragmatic about the men underneath him. I would have liked to see more of him but he’s unfortunately saddled with a bad case of ‘makes a ridiculous decision to serve the plot’ at the end of the book, which made me roll my eyes.

Thalia had a lot of potential right up until she meets Marith and Spark curses her to fall in love with him because he’s good looking (and apparently for no other reason than that).  I enjoyed her early scenes in the Temple, with Spark again doing some good world-building with the establishment of Tanith and how he’s worshipped and I did quite enjoy the emotional wear she experiences at being required to sacrifice children and other people in the name of her God and the suggestion that some of the priestesses disapprove of and work against her despite her power.  I especially liked the fatalistic view that she takes towards her fate and how she sees it as open to chance (notably through the fact that at the age of 5 the girls are made to select a marble, the colour of which will determine their fate), which makes her blind to how such decisions can be manipulated.

However once Spark engineers her plot to drive Thalia from the Temple, she becomes little more than a love interest and woman in peril, to be driven where the men wish her to go.  Her romance with Marith is tedious and unconvincing, even though Spark seems to intend for Thalia to face some moral qualms about it in the future books as she comes to see Marith for who he is.  I also disliked the abrupt shift to giving Thalia a first-person voice in some chapters, which I didn’t find added much and instead served to jolt me out of the story and although there are late hints at Thalia potentially having some kind of magical power of influence as a result of her role, this never really seems to go anywhere.

The biggest issue with the book for me though was Marith because he’s such a whingey, self-absorbed, awful excuse for a man that I found it difficult to care what happened to him and this is a problem given that he’s clearly intended to be the anti-hero.  I’m not one of those people who needs to like the main character in a book but there needs to be some kind of hook to keep me interested in him and, for me, that’s just not here in this.  The self-indulgent flashbacks to Marith’s relationship with Carin left me bored and far from shocking me, Marith’s actions and subsequent descent into full-blown substance and alcohol abuse made me yawn. It’s not helped by the fact that Spark has given him a notorious ancestry as the descendent of Amrath, an unstoppable conqueror and killer of dragons who marched across the world killing and raising cities to the ground until he’s betrayed by the person closest to him.  There are constant references to Amrath throughout the book and Spark is clearly drawing a parallel between his reign and Marith’s rise but that sense of destiny calling does mean that the story begins to get predictable.

The plot itself meanders too slowly for my tastes. An awful lot of pages are spent following the mercenaries as they approach Sorloth and then, once they finally get there, finalising their plans, all of which really dragged for me.  It’s not helped by the fact that at times the plot gets driven by random decisions (e.g. in the final quarter when Marith – having spent most of the book running away from his family and home, suddenly decides to head back), which I found a little irritating.

Spark does handle the action scenes well and there’s a lot of violence here for those who like it (although, again for me the repetitive nature of the brutality ended up robbing it of its impact). Ultimately there just wasn’t enough here to grab me and although I normally enjoy grimdark fantasy, the nihilism and slowness of the plot here meant that it didn’t engross me and as such, I won’t be reading on although I would check out Spark’s other work.

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