Review of ‘The Court of Broken Knives’ by Anna Smith Spark

Much grimdark fantasy deals in the harsh poetry of killing, but in ‘Court of Broken Knives’ Anna Smith Spark elevates it to a religion. If the High Priestess doesn’t kill someone (man, woman or child) then it is held that the end of days will come for all. Given that the temple in question is at the heart of an ancient, impregnable city such horror seems unlikely, but there are dark rumblings afoot, corruption at court and new threats from abroad. The novel explores the evolution of these threats over an epic tale of political intrigue, harsh journeys across an unforgiving land and the way extreme duress releases uncanny abilities that resolve an immediate problem at enormous long-term cost.
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.

Buy ‘The Court of Broken Knives’

Anna’s website

Anna interviewed by Russell Smith

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