Book cover: The Court of Broken Knives - Anna Smith Spark (a sword and a figure silhouetted as if in firelight)Sorlost is the heart of the richest empire in the world: ancient, proud, unconquered. But its self-regard is stronger than its armies. As nobles conspire for power and mercenaries flock to their call, who will prove ruthless enough to seize – and hold – power?

The Court of Broken Knives is a dark fantasy of godlike antiheroes and failed kingdoms, which I’m going to struggle to review. This is one of those books that I struggled with from the start, but which I can objectively see is a strong debut from a powerful new voice – it’s going to leave other people far more satisfied than it left me.

Like Chalk, I can appreciate what it does well: I loved how Anna Smith Spark evoked a sense of place. Even now, a couple of weeks after putting it down, I have a clear mental image of the quality of light on the streets of Sorlost and can see the towers of Malth Salene against the sky. I can smell the incense in the dimness of the Great Temple, the flickering of the candles left by supplicants to Tanis the Lord of Living and Dying. Each setting had depth and texture, a living, breathing world populated by servants and working classes, merchants who went about their business largely unaware of the doings of the warring upper classes.

But I nearly put it down before the end of the prologue. We start in the midst of a battle that makes no sense, where the lust for blood and death is unending and there’s no distinction between allies and enemies. I’m not big on gore, and this sloshes around buckets of blood and despair, painted in prose that is remarkable, but not my cup of tea in this context. That said, after the opening chapter there’s a good less of it until the final act – but it put me on the back foot.

The ruthless politics of Sorlost – which form the backbone of the book – were more my cup of tea, as was Duke Orhan Emmereth. Orhan holds one of the highest ranks in the empire, but has very little influence. He is clever and passionate – with at least an ounce of compassion to go with his pint of self-interest – and he genuinely wants the best for his country. He’s a traitor determined to do what he believes the Sekemleth Empire needs, acting in the clear knowledge that he will have to do terrible things to make things better.

Orhan’s tenuous alliances with the Emperor’s right hand man Tam and his own sometime-lover Darath are driven by necessity: Orhan doesn’t have the strength to act alone, and he can’t trust them if he turns his back on them. Sorlost glitters with malice, and Smith Spark captures the tension beautifully.

I’m amused that I’ve read 2 grimdark novels penned by women this year, and both feature gay protagonists. Grimdark, you’ve changed. I like it. Sexuality, delightfully, has no strings attached in Sorlost (at least if you’re a man; it’s unclear how much freedom women have behind closed doors). Marriage is a political alliance and can be convenient; although Orhan genuinely likes his wife, if not enough to curb his appetites. Unfortunately, that seems to be the best women can hope for in Sorlost: we see far too little of Orhan’s sister Celyse, who is much too intriguing to be kept so thoroughly in the background (although if you gave her an inch I suspect she’d poison the primary narrative and take over the book).

We do get a female POV in Thalia, High Priestess of Tanis. The most powerful woman in the Sekemleth Empire, she holds life and death in her hands: chosen as a child to conduct the human sacrifices to Tanis that keep the world safe. The religion of Sorlost is as grim as the culture of knife fights to the death at the city’s fountains, and the thread of religion and superstition is interesting – but Thalia herself feels oddly unbelieving (although there are several minor acts of god or magic when she needs them).

While her early chapters have the flavours of my much-loved Tombs of Atuan, she is more worldly (if not worldly enough for what will happen to her) and less centred on her faith than Arha. I was curious how the Temple narrative would interact with the main plots; unfortunately, I found the answer disappointing. SPOILER (mouse over to read) Thalia is ultimately little more than a love interest in a romance that I had numerous issues with (cue the gritting of my teeth, although I take those flickers of magic as a hint that Thalia may grow into more in the sequel).

Although it was what kept me reading, the politics and religion of Sorlost are not what The Court of Broken Knives is ultimately about. The conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor is an excuse to bring mercenaries to the Golden City. With them comes Marith, who is too well-educated, too haunted and frankly too pretty to fit in. it seems likely that squad leader Skie knows exactly who the boy is, but a clever mercenary knows how to keep a secret. Both Skie and his second, Tobias, have lived too long not to recognise when they’ve got something they can use to their advantage.

I don’t think we’re meant to wonder about Marith’s identity and his demons so much as be fascinated by watching how they play out. He’s fights drug addiction and wrestles with self-loathing – if not very hard. The question really is whether his habits will undermine the band’s mission as he loses his grip.

It’s going to work for some readers, but I found Marith hard going. I wanted to feel some sympathy for him, but I couldn’t really muster any (I had more sympathy for the redshirt mercenaries travelling with him, foul-mouthed and sexually-frustrated). It was clear where his story had to lead, and unfortunately, it’s just not a journey I’m interested in reading about.

Court of Broken Knives sets up a world it seems likely that that sequel will sweep away in a tide of indiscriminate bloodshed. Unfortunately, while Anna Smith Spark has constructed an intricate, vibrant setting, I’m left with little investment in the characters that populate it – and no appetite for more war (or more Marith. I just can’t) – so this holds little appeal for me. I think others will love this book – it’s well-written, interesting, intricate. I will be watching out for Anna Smith Spark’s work in future, but I won’t be finishing Empires of Dust.

***

I received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. I’m sorry it isn’t a more whole-heartedly positive one, but I think we both knew this was a long shot.