COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES-EMPI_HB Hardcover
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Top reviews from the United States
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This is quite well written with high quality prose and some humor. The Tobias POV narration is very good, but the pacing is very uneven as it switches to other POVs with Orhan, Thalia and Marith. The narrative arc is similar to a mix of The Black Company and Prince Of Thorns. The main focus is on thematic exploration rather than plot development or visceral/acute participation with the characters. The main theme is whether to be pessimistic or optimistic about a young person with destructive tendencies; whether to believe in their best self or fear their worst aspect. Addiction is used as a relatable metaphor for this. This character arc will be pursued over the full series so there is very little character development seen in this opening volume. The plot is somewhat muddled and disconnected — lots of deus ex machina — in service of that thematic exploration. The grimdark tag flows from the high body count and the collateral damage to innocents, but very little of the violence is explicit in the text; instead there is an almost dreamlike detachment.
Regular readers of fantasy may feel short-changed by the lack of focus on plot, so approach this with expectations appropriately set. The quality of the prose is definitely worthwhile.
Now, I love me some grimdark! Make no bones about it!
So after getting my hands on this 1st of a trilogy, liking the cover and synapses, I dug in...
And after about a 100 pages, the limit I tend to give meself for unknown authors I take a chance on, I felt this type of written prose doesn't work for me.
I am a stickler about certain things in my reading. And the naming of people, places and things, is one of them. A lot of that there me out of the reading of this.
OK, so maybe the strength of the overall writing will carry me through. Nope. Way too choppy for my reading tastebuds. There are few and far between authors that can do this and keep me rivited.
Sorry Anna, you ain't one of them.
2017 has been a phenomenal year for Grimdark fantasy, especially in regards to debuts like Kings of the Wild and Godblind, and The Court of Broken Knives continues that streak. Michael R. Fletcher calls Spark "the Queen of Grimdark fantasy" and he hit the nail on the head. I have never read (well, listened to) a more gritty, disturbing, gory, gorgeous novel in my life and to know there are sequels to come makes me squeal like a child. The writing style may turn people off, much like Peter Newman's 'The Vagrant', but Spark beautifully executes each and every line with a prose that guts you like a knife (see what I did there?) Though I will say, similar to other reviews, there were times where I had to rewind a bit and re-listen to a chapter or two to make sure I completely understood exactly what was going on (the audiobook also isn't quite as loud as others through an iPhone speaker).
The city of Sorlost, where people piss gold and jewels, stands beautiful and unconquered, but is ruled by an Emperor who, well, lets just say is "losing his touch". Orhan Emmereth has charged a group of traveling mercs to kill its Emperor and all those who remain, before it is lost via invasion, and so a new empire can be reborn from the ashes. Among these mercs is a new recruit, Marith, who has a worse than troubled past and a more than certain future, if he can stay sober enough to realize it. As the mercs enter Sorlost, not all that glitters is gold and betrayal is the word of the day. Death is imminent but glory is forever.
Blood, brutal deaths, love, betrayal, characters you love to hate, and dragons all combine to create a unique world and astounding story; one that will leave you clawing amongst the dead on the battlefield for more.
First, I think the story, world-building, and characters are incredible. The world-building in particular was a highlight for me. The narrative itself is beautiful in its depictions, darkly poetic throughout much of it. The one thing that I did not like was the intentional repetition of words and phrases, often one after another, after another. After speaking briefly with the author, I fully understand the intention behind this style, however that doesn't make it any less annoying when the instances pop up, and there are a great many of them.
The above is in no way meant to steer people away from this amazing book, as there is a lot here to like. If you are in the style and are in the market for a grimdarkish read, then I can recommend this wholeheartedly.
Top reviews from other countries
And then there is the writing style, where the author seems determined to show off her vocabulary at the expense of well-crafted prose, making pseudo-sentences out of multiple adjectives and their accompanying noun in the absence of a verb. The occasional sentence in this style can have a stark effect, but after a while it simply grates.
As for the storyline, it never really feels as though it knows where it is going, and by the end of the book you have no real feel for Marith or whether he even deserves to be followed into the next volume.
I don’t actually regret reading this book, but at the same time this feels like one of those books that gets in the way of reading something more interesting.
The writing itself isn’t bad. You can tell the author is talented, I just don’t feel this particular story was told in a very engaging/enjoyable way. I have a fair few negatives about this book (and so few positives) and will do my best to list them all:
Firstly; I just felt that there was no clear plot for the first 30-35% of the novel. I just felt as though I was bumbling through, reading page after page and not really getting the bigger picture. One of the main faults with this is that, at the start at least, there is so much conversation going on and it is rarely easy to figure out who was talking. Even harder when you haven’t been introduced to the characters properly yet.
Another problem I had with it was telling when a character was thinking something as opposed to it being part of the narrative. I am used to thoughts being in italics or in some clearly denoted way that what is occurring is something going on in the character’s head rather than an observation of the overall narrative. In Court of Broken Knives I often thought ‘has the author forgot speech marks?’ as she would just throw thoughts in amidst the main narrative in ways I wasn’t used to seeing. It just added to what I felt was an overwhelmingly jarring reading experience.
The author’s constant fascination with switching from first person to third person perspective for different chapters was annoying. You pick up pretty quickly that she only does first person for one particular character … and then she throws a third person perspective chapter in for that character. It annoyed me a lot that there was no coherent structure to the novel as far as perspective goes.
The politics felt boring in parts yet interesting in others. Which, I imagine is what you’d expect for politics. To start with it felt as though I was supposed to have a working knowledge of different countries or political figures. Seeing as how the reader does not have such knowledge, I found it hard to care about certain parties getting the wool pulled over their eyes. It all made sense later on in the novel, but by that point the author had lost my interest and I was purely reading because there were a few characters I found interesting and I really want to DNF as few books as possible this year.
As I mentioned, there are a few characters I found really interesting and they kept me reading when all sense was screaming for me to stop and move on to something I cared about. Sadly, the character I found most interesting kind of just fizzled out towards the end in a very vague way. I assume he will make some sort of resurgence in the sequel, but I really don’t have the patience to read through it just on the off-chance he has a few cool moments. One really bad aspect to the characters was how poor a lot of their speech was. I just never felt as though a good portion of the characters were talking in ways you would expect actual people to talk. It just made a very stilted read feel all the more distant to me.
I make it sound as if the whole book is horrible to read. It isn’t. As I mentioned, the author is a talented a writer it’s just that her writing style really isn’t for me, nor do I expect it ever to be. Her descriptions can be incredibly beautiful, poetically so. But then she will start a new section with something like ‘Woke up the next morning’. Who woke up the next morning? This is an epic fantasy with several character POVs, don’t make me guess what character this chapter is about. It was all of these little frustrations throughout the novel that made me mark it so low.
The Court of Broken Knives has a terrific, expertly-paced plot, characters that live and breathe, and the battle scenes are truly epic - in both the traditional and modern senses of the word.
The quality of the writing, though, is what sets the book apart for me. Smith-Spark's prose is incredibly rich and vivid. The world she has created is strange and fantastical, but also utterly convincing. You can almost smell and taste it. I loved the languid sensuality of the dissolute city of Sorlost, its jewelled buildings and monumental metal walls. I loved the desolate beauty of the desert. I loved that Smith-Spark takes on the most disturbing aspects of human nature in times of war and does it with dark aplomb.
There are a handful of books that make me draw a deep, shaky breath when I finish the last page. This was one of them.
It also looks at the time-honoured fantasy tradition of someone taking up their fated mantle, except instead of noble Strider in ‘Lord of the Rings’ becoming great King Aragorn, we have young junkie mercenary Marith becoming ever more psychopathic until he is barely human at all, High Priestess Thalia slaughtering and maiming innocents (including herself) before escaping into a new life of sensuous abandon and cunning political player Orhan orchestrating a coup and belatedly realising the awful responsibilities that come with it.
Orhan’s role has contemporary resonance; he imagines one action will bring about radical change (‘taking back control’ if you will), only to find a hydra of deceits and conspiracies immediately accumulate to become new threats. The novel is very good on these outcomes and the subsequent costs; for example, sparing the family of one of his co-conspirators means Orhan must find other, more disposable people to burn alive in their place. He is a great character; self-aware, conflicted and with a genuine desire for reform. As well as his political role, he is defined by his personal relationships. He has an open marriage with his physically scarred but dignified wife, Bil; she is pregnant by one of his bodyguards because Orhan’s true love is his male friend Darath. The novel is deeply homoerotic, successfully so because the author understands that love between males is based as much on friendship and camaraderie as it is on sex.
This understanding extends to Marith as well, although he is bisexual. Fresh from the traumatic end of a seemingly idyllic relationship with another prince, Marith has fallen far. Tagging along with a bunch of mercenaries hired by Orhan to kill the Emperor of a land far from Marith’s own, the young man yearns for the awful release of a drug called hatha. The novel is very beguiling in its sensuous depictions both of the luxuries of the city and also the darker side of this world; hatha leaves silvery scars around Marith’s eyes that makes them itch and the cumulative effect of this seemingly minor affliction is genuinely uncomfortable. However, that discomfort is nothing compared to Marith’s actions when he begins to ease into his frightful destiny. It’s not like we haven’t been warned; the novel opens with a battle scene unique in my reading of fiction, in which the fighting is almost erotic; especially when demi-god of destruction Amrath appears on the field. Marith’s relationship to Amrath, who was killed a thousand years before Marith was born, pushes the story to its extraordinary conclusion.
Much is made of Orhan and Marith’s physical beauty, which is a refreshing change to the usual lumpen oiks hacking through the eerie swamps of grimdark fantasy. Marith in particular gets away with more than he should because he looks incredible. ‘But he’s so beautiful’ people say after the latest moral-boggling atrocity, as if Marith’s appearance is meant to restrain him. In fact, the author understands all too well that rather than mere decoration, beauty is a power of its own and an often terrible one at that.
Thalia is a lesser demon; indeed, her claustrophic life in the temple is one of the more oppressive horrors in the book. Limited to a few corridors, chambers and a tiny glimpse of the stars through a small roof window, it’s one of the best studies of religious restriction I’ve read for a while. The architecture is bad enough; the constant slaughter is something else again. At one point, Thalia’s friend knocks over a candle and has to be blinded and have her hands chopped off. Thalia just gets on with it, religious conditioning enabling her to hold disgusted horror in abeyance, at least for a while. She too is a creature of uncanny physical beauty and here too the outer and inner reality are in conflict, particularly when Thalia discovers she has more in common with her god of death than she realized.
The emergence of the magic takes place gradually, and is not beholden to any Dungeons & Dragons-type mathematic system. The magic is low, raw and overwhelming, taking the form of an ability to influence rather than spells that bring about physical transformation. Like beauty, the outcome of a conspiracy or the mindset of a psychopath, there is something unknowable about it. The reader is nonetheless swept up into this maelstrom because while the narrative is harsh, it is surprisingly un-sadistic. There is no detailed relishing of the horrors any more than there is of the eroticism; here too, it’s unknowable – we are presented merely with the outcome. It means the book is a mature study of the workings of power, be it lust, warfare or an unholy but gripping commingling of both.