The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark

I’m very grateful to the author for an advance copy of this novel

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 (Hardcover)

King of Ruin, King of Dust and Shadows, King of Death, He Will Rule All, The King is Coming

Marith Altrersyr – father-killer, dragonlord, leader of the blood-soaked Amrath Army – is keeping his promises. He is determined to become King of all Irlast and take back the seat of his ancestors.

Only Thalia, once high priestess of the Lord of Le Empire, might stop Marith and his army’s deadly march. But she is torn between two destinies – and if she was to return home, what would she find there? A city on the brink of ruin: diseased, despairing, dying?

Crawling through a tunnel deep under the ruins of her city, Landra Relast vows vengeance. Her family has been burned, her home destroyed, and now Marith – once her betrothed – must die.

But as Landra cuts through the wasteland left in the wake of Marith’s army, she finds that she is not the only one who wishes him ill…

Warning – some spoilers for The Court of Broken Knives will be mentioned

At the start of this year I was engrossed and ultimately very impressed by the debut instalment of this trilogy – The Court of Broken Knives. What starts with mercenaries hired to kill an Emperor suddenly revealed that a young man named Marith was a long-lost drug-addled royal heir who by chance suddenly rediscovered his desire to take back his crown alongside awaken an immensely violent bloodlust. He falls in love with the High Priestess of Sorlost Thalia who runs away with him on his journey while in Sorlost the man who hired his mercenaries to bring about change instead finds himself very much supporting the corrupt powers he had planned to overthrow. A key factor for me in the success of this novel was the writing of Smith Spark herself – vivid, poetical and powerful it really stood out from other entries into Grimdark territory as something refreshingly different. I’m very pleased to find that the sequel is even stronger and just as enticing.

While Marith was often seen more as aside for much of the first novel as his secret became a key mystery now we focus very much on his quest for ruling the world. The first section of the book follows the death of his father and his decision to move onto attacking his own kingdom and family. Thalia stands as a watcher to these events and it is an absolutely a stunning opening with an invasion of a town via ships at sea. It’s a beautifully whirl of action and pain – from the pageantry and cruelty of sacrificing animals for some form of moral advantages to eventual war at sea with no glamour or heroics just two armies fighting to stay alive. Once finally arriving ashore to take control the question for Marith is ‘what’s next?’ and slowly Marith follows the path of his infamous and dangerous ancestor Amarath marching across the other Kingdoms. Meanwhile in Sorlost Orshan is finding that he is under of suspicion for the various deaths that mysteriously coincided with the mercenary attack and the shifts in power towards him may have consequences for all he cares about and wants to protect.

Alongside these two main plot points we now have two new viewpoints. The mercenary Tobias who indirectly led to Marith being able to seize power again meets up with Landra relast the woman who decided to trigger Marith’s capture and then saw her plans for revenge end in ruin for everyone she knew. These two begin to explore if Marith can be stopped before he causes much more harm. While in Sorlost we start to see the world less from nobles and priestesses but also those who serve them as we see how one of Orshan’s servants gets treated after an attack on his home.

There is a lot going on in this novel and its finely balanced to see what is increasingly looking like two sides getting closer to come form of confrontation. Sorlost is a decadent power that seems to have forgotten the basics of rule in favour of protecting elites. Marith seems to be on a quest to recover all the lands that his ancestor had but at the same time take revenge on all other lands. In the first novel I noticed that for all the main characters the theme seemed to be that the societies that they came from influenced their decisions even when they seemed to be the wrong ones.  Marith in particular is an example of toxic masculinity at its worst – while undoubtably clever and can be charming his family upbringing and court politics led relatives and hangers on to heavily influence who he must be but ultimately, he decides to carry on because he feels this is what he is entitled to. While Thalia would have been happy with a simple home Marith wants everything now - a deeply scary character who you’re never sure what he will do next nor if he can be stopped.

A second theme here is that sometimes even when after seeing the results of their actions these characters all decide it will be better to plough on despite the likely consequences. Its tragic seeing those who clearly have interests of others at heart deciding to keep taking the path of most harm.  There is a chilling insight into humanity one character makes that most of these people who support these sides have decided to do so much harm to others not because of some invisible magical force Marith exudes but because a nihilistic and violent march to crush the world is deep down what they’ve always wanted.

Powering all of this is Smith Spark’s writing and I am definitely impressed how this has grown stronger in the novel. The first novel was often small scenes of intrigue or one on fighting but now we get whole vistas of battles, city riots and cities turning to ruin. There is a general feeling of a world ending possibly for the last time. Its beautifully dark poetry and while equally happy to go for blood and guts when needed the whole book has an epic feel to it and this time we get a stronger feeling of the magical forces in this world. As well as battle mages used in law and small enchantments there are hints of a larger battle between light and dark underway.

I think this is best described as High Fantasy Grimdark. We are seeing the classic story of two ancient empires battling out but this time the focus is on the people impacted and unlike standard Grimdark which always focuses on the front line this novel looks at those in charge making these frequently awful decisions and knowing the results will be deadly for many. Deciding you want to take over the rule of a country or safeguard your self after evading death is often in fantasy seen as noble and heroic and this novel reminds us of what happens to people other than the hero.  This all points to a very impressive showdown in the final book and I cannot wait to see where we go next - although I suspect it will hurt.