The Empires of Dust - The House of Sacrifce by Anna Smith Spark

So welcome to the first ‘Happy Endings?’!! 

A reminder in this feature I’m going to here look at series - many of which will be final instalments but some just parts of a running series and some I’ve always mean to start. But to start things off the conclusion to one of more recent favourite series was recently published – starting with The Court of Broken Knives  and  The Tower of Living and Dying – both of which I strongly recommend you to read.

I was also lucky enough to be provided a copy by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.

How have I come to this series?

I fell in love in this series reading the first novel on a suitably baking hot hotel roof in Barcelona taking me to a desert city where a young man named Marith who appears to be running away from his destiny ends up seeking to recapture his throne and with him his bride - the escaped High Priestess Thalia. Over the two earlier instalments Thalia and Marith conquer the city; remove his enemies and reign supreme.  All of what I’ve just told you is true but also a lie.

Think of this as the series that challenges the truth behind any legend or myth.  Not all princes are noble; not all replaced rulers deserve to be labelled tyrants and wars fought for any purpose are rarely noble.  Wars here are vicious, blood-sodden and most horrifyingly of all those in battle absolutely love it. Marith is beautiful, well -read, a good laugh on a good day and drug-addled, capricious and terrifying on most others. An absolutely perfect example of toxic masculinity in a fantasy universe and here his make-up actually helps him grow more powerful; gain the backing of powerful allies and the unswerving loyalty of his army.  If we think of people like Henry VIII, Alexander and Genghis Khan should we not be surprised that he is perfect to be a conqueror?

Add to this insight is Anna Smith Spark’s unique, vivid and compelling writing style.  Action sequences read her like poetry, narration like a myth being told – it’s all about making you feel the sensation of the moment and emotions of the characters’ battle scenes are both bloody and yet compulsive.  The reader gets the full attraction and horror of war. It’s a brutal addiction and it has consequences.

So, let’s see if it ends well?

The House of Sacrifice (The Empires of Dust Trilogy)

Publisher – HarperCollins

Publisher – Out Now

Price – £16.99 Hardback

Hail Him. Behold Him. Man-Killer. Life Stealer. Death-bringer. Life’s Thief. All are bound to him. His word is law. The night is coming. The sudden light that makes the eyes blind. Golden one. Shining. Glorious. Life’s Judgement. Life’s pleasure. Grave of Hope.

Marith Altrersyr has won. He cut a path of blood and vengeance and needless violence around the world and he rules. It is time for Marith to put down his sword, to send home his armies, to grow a beard and become fat. It is time to look to his own house, and to produce an heir. The King of death must now learn to live.

But some things cannot be learnt.

The spoils of war turn to ash in the mouths of the Amrath Army and soon they are on the move again. But Marith, lord of lies, dragon killer, father-killer, has begun to falter and his mind decays. How long can a warlord rotting from within continue to win? As the Army marches on to Sorlost, Thalia’s thoughts turn to home and to the future: a life grows inside her and it is a precious thing – but it grows weak.

Why must the sins of the father curse the child?

What makes someone want to fight?  Is it a noble cause?  Nationalistic impulses?  Or most scarily of all because it’s intoxicating bloodthirsty fun?  Its’ that urge to switch our mind off and unleash violence to anyone in the way?  That power can be intoxicating and when we study history and think of all those armies that decided lets just take things over you have to wonder why.  Later on, we like to be told the cause was noble and just – but are we really telling ourselves that vast armies are playing by the rules?  As historians pay more attention to the aftermath of war, we see tales of brutality, torture and rape – in fantasy we tend to love the idea of the noble and just war and not think this may be happening off-stage. Grimdark literature gets a reputation for enjoying the chance to be edgy and not showing you the consequences. In Anna Smith Spark’s final instalment of the series all this is show to us; we are shown to be almost complicit in what is to come, and everyone will suffer for it.

A theme of the novels has been good people doing bad things for the best of reasons. Thalia escapes with Marith as he shows her a world outside her life in a temple killing children; Marith wants to atone for earlier sins and then also sees a chance to regain his lost birth right at the hands of his ‘wicked stepmother’ and back in the desert city of Sorlost where Thalia came from we had the two important city rulers and lovers Orhan and Darath trying to save their city from being taken over from their enemies managed in their plan to unleash Marith on the world and as their conspiracy fell apart we left them under the rule of their enemies the Immish. Now book ending the first novel these two forces will find themselves in a final confrontation.

By now we know Marith is not a noble returning king. He is an over privileged, spoiled and loves to destroy, He is also magically superpowered and controls Dragons. The people see him as the returned Amrath the last warlord to conquer the world and certainly Marith has all of the powers noted to his ancestor. Thalia is now married and while has expressed some concern if Marith is the best choice, yet she does love him, so they stay together. One of the most horrifying scenes is how Marith takes out his anger on his own loyal followers and their families when he suffers a personal tragedy – and what is even worse is that some forgive him. By seeing Marith’s rise to power and his army now amassing a hundred thousand soldiers all sharing that lust to destroy the key question for a reader is can anything stop him? 

An interesting direction in the book is its examination of Thalia – the wife of the monster.  We are very sympathetic to her initially she was without choice made a priestess born to kill her sacrifices. Marith shows her an escape but can’t she see what he is?  The book challenges our temptation to say some people are deserving of sympathy due to their background but ultimately people do have choices, but she too has her motivations.  At the same time when she suffers tragedy the book really looks out to the reader and says secretly don’t you think this is a good thing for her to suffer and our answer is uncomfortable.  She may hold the key to how this tale will finally end.

I loved how this novel gave me hope and then took it away. Firstly, we have a Marith who has actually done all he set out to do. A glorious city is now being built in his honour; Thalia is pregnant, and his allies all suggest now time to consolidate. And it’s not a spoiler to say that this path is not taken. We see the army unleashed and it’s terrifying – it’s not an army taking over governments and leaving the inhabitants to adapt to a new empire.  If Marith’s army attacks, then it’s death.  This is a leader and an army that wrap themselves in his bloodied banners – they even argue with him when it’s tempting to stop.  For this army the enemy, be it – men, women or children; the armed or unarmed will all die; cities will be destroyed, and they all love it. Smith Spark captures the blood rush the armies feel and how they relish the killing, the rape and the gain of riches. Next time I read a battle sequence in another book I will always now be wondering what is actually going on offscreen.

The midpoint of the book is compelling. Marith finally meets a foe that is his equal and there is so little explanation about why or how that foe is, but that foe is the kind of legendary myth that feels true to the tale and their battle is suitably cataclysmic. Usually in fantasy these are the battles that a series ends with but another approach that I loved in this novel was this was not the path taken. This is a novel focused on the aftermath of conquest and that final section of the book is Marith deciding Sorlost instead should be finally attacked for no better reason than it is in the way.

The final section of the book for me is a brilliantly visceral, terrifying and stunning piece of writing. On one level we have a weakened major city besieged by a powerful magical and blood thirsty army. Bu we also have the focus on the personal. In Sorlost Orhan and Darath are fighting to save their city but it is looking hopeless and their own children and families are at risk. We have Marith and Thalia perhaps both trying to settle scores from the first book, but we also see a character that seems to be our conscience the seasoned mercenary Tobias who sees Marith for the monster he is now once again fighting for Marith side. The build up to the final battle is tense and slowly we feel there is no way to get out of it and when it finally erupts it is brutal. This is war painted in in blood; we see the madness of people knowing they are about to die and an army that revels in destruction.  It is truly horrifying as we have seen some of these soldiers off duty; those we have laughed and sympathised with as we find out their life stories but then we see them doing the most horrible things and it’s felt by them to be par for the course. Brilliantly powerful, shocking and as a reader I feel horribly complicit and haunted

So, is this a happy ending?

Well not for most of the people in the novel!! But as a reader it feels true. Grimdark gets a reputation for loving the moral ambiguity to make characters edgy and the cool looking violence but not showing the consequences. Many writers use rape and sexual violence as just a plot device to a) give their tortured heroes motivation/edginess or b) an off-scene nudge nudge wink wink part of sexual gratification. Anna Smith Spark shows you instead the brutal reality of such people. They are compelling and like Pratchett’s elves ‘glamourous’ but underneath they all wallow in revenge, blood and enjoying making someone else pay for the cruelties of life. This series challenges us as the reader to think what exactly war and battle are like – for me that’s what grimdark should be delivering.

The impressive and scariest thing is that we get to see the attraction of it.  The majesty of a magical world; dragons, spells, mysterious mountains and creatures are all there and beautifully described but our human desire to destroy it seems to be always there. The writing makes those scenes as enthralling to us as a magical tower, but we make our choices and that seems to be to choose ruin. The very final chapters of this series see a number of characters all do truly terrible things and that is not because they had no choice but because they feel that is what they want to do.  I cannot say this is a book everyone should read as the subject matter is often harrowing but I do think if you are interested in that dark side of war and why people do these things as well as the extremely high quality of Spark’s writing then this is a series you should be picking up.  You won’t forget this journey I promise.