The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
Publisher - Harper Collins
Published - Out Now!
Price - £12.99 Hardback
In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.
Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.
The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.
It's often said we love a good villain. The attraction of a larger than life character like Dr Lector or Loki is possibly these characters have a sense of freedom to do and say those things we cannot. But there is also the view that every villain is actually the hero of their own story. Their actions are internally at least logical even if morally questionable. In this excellent debit Anna Smith Spark gives us a new fantasy sequence that gives us fascinating characters who while they can do terrible things are ultimately very very human.
In some ways it starts quite traditionally as we see Orhan is a man watching the ancient empire his family has served being increasingly pressured by outside enemies and corruption. His solution is to kill the ineffectual Emperor and install order through his own supporters. An infamous group of mercenaries are hired….and it all goes to Hell. A running theme to the book is that cunning plans rarely actually pan out the way you expect. The question then is what do you do next and how far do you then go?
We have a focus on three main characters. Orhan is civilised, kind to his family and slightly balancing his effectively political marriage to his wife Bil and his actual love for his friend Darath. Outside of Government in the Temple of Tanis we have Thalia the High Priestess brought into service at an early age her life is the temple conducting prayer and when required human sacrifice – dutiful but always aware that due to the nature of the religion her own life hangs in balance as the Temple always looks for her successor (who then must kill her) and then into this mix wanders Marith and he is the catalyst for tearing this world upside down.
Marith is the fascinating character. He seems a lost soul and we are given several clues that his childhood may be hind that outlook. But he can be amazingly noble and when we first meet him he takes on a small dragon that attacks his squad, but this sensitive, cultured young man will on occasion act completely the opposite of what you expect. He’s capable of terrible acts when needed (or if he thinks required) and at one stage is beautifully described as having ‘a boy’s glee in which maggots writhed’. For Orhan he will be both responsible for failure and a chance for glory but for Thalia he is freedom and a dangerous attraction. Endlessly fascinating he may be one of the more dangerous characters fantasy has seen for some time
Choices are an important factor in this story. Smith Spark really makes each of her characters very human rather than a fantasy trope and we see the society they all come from has forced them into certain roles. Orhan cannot be with the man he loves; Thalia cannot refuse to sacrifice, or her own life is forfeit and the childhood Marith has come from has quite frankly made him think he is a worthless man ready for death. As a reader I found myself willing them all to succeed but then recoiling as some of those choices mean others will be hurt. A political revolution doesn’t just remove one corrupt ruler but their servants, old friends and even just those passing by may find themselves sacrificed for the greater good. The old saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is apt here. Each character gets a choice to say no but for the best of reasons they decide to plough on. That we understand and sympathise with their monstrous choices may be the biggest horror of all. Very few don’t feel guilt they just feel the world has sadly not given them a real choice.
Another strong point as to why I loved this is the quality of the writing and worldbuilding. From the desert empire of Sorlost with it’s temples, drug dens and bronze walls to the small desert towns and then later a mysterious northern island kingdom. The descriptions of these place really give you a sense of wonder. Be it a mage performing magic for street theatre; a small town having a party that allows characters a night away from their lives; to a hard town of whalers battling for survival in rough seas. Everywhere you get a sense of a mysterious realm of gods, dragons and an ultimate fear that life here is fragile and a character you have warmed to may be only few pages from facing death.
Recently and I think correctly Fantasy has been looking slightly more at those on the edges of society the soldiers, the priests and those who keep the world turning. Part of the attraction of this trend is to remind us of the people on the literally sharp end of decisions in those in power. But in this book Smith Spark gives us a glance again upwards and makes us see that while their actions may be often be terrible the real horror is that they think it’s justified for the best of intentions. I’m absolutely fascinated as to where the larger tale is going and the sense of a bigger conflict now ready to erupt is something I’m keen to find out in future stories. An excellent debut