This is a bit of a departure from my usual book reviews, as most of the works I have done so far have been more like 30 or 40 years old. In this case, Anna Smith Spark contacted me and asked if I would like to review her book, and once I was satisfied it fit generally within the bounds of Sword & Sorcery fiction, I said okay. So this will be a bit longer, and I intend to be a bit more thorough. Also: Spoilers.
The Court of Broken Knives is the first in the Empires of Dust series, of which the second book, The Tower of Living and Dying, has just recently come out. As an author, Spark is just getting started, and Court is her first published book. It’s plain from her work that she is well read in history, and is also a fan of some classic pulp fantasies. There’s a place on her world map called “Hastur”, so I know there’s some Lovecraft on her bookshelf, though the world she has created seems to resonate more strongly with Moorcock and maybe Clark Ashton Smith in its otherworldly unfriendliness, and a lot of the book reminds me of Glen Cook’s Black Company and Dread Empire series – though she herself told me she actually hasn’t read any of his work.
Spark has been called the “queen of grimdark” and her publisher seems to be selling this story on the basis of how gritty and grim it is. Maybe my meter is set differently, but I didn’t find it all that dark, myself. It’s obviously a morally ambiguous world and none of the characters are what you would call sympathetic, but there are plenty of places where the story could have gone much darker than it does, and it does not approach Elric-like levels of existential horror.
The world as presented is almost a long-post apocalypse landscape where a thousand years in the past a guy called Amrath basically became the High Lord of Fucking Shit Up and led a crusade that was less one of conquest and more just killing and burning everything. He was supposed to be the child of demons and dragons and unkillable until he got killed by an actual dragon. He was so terrible that the world celebrates his birthday as a holiday as essentially a way to propitiate his spirit and hope he doesn’t come back. A lot of his legend is cloaked in uncertainty, and while I find the idea of “dragonborn” almost painfully cliché at this point, I get the sense that there is more to it awaiting reveals in the later books.
The action of this book centers on the city of Sorlost, decaying center of the decadent Sekemleth Empire, depicted as a kind of blend of Persian and Egyptian mythologic feel and cultural ideas. The story presents us with two interrelated and yet distinct plotlines. One plot concerns Orhan, a high noble of the empire who is involved in a plot to assassinate the emperor and seize control, and the other plot follows Marith, a young man with a mysterious past who is a part of the mercenary company Orhan has hired to help carry out his plan.