On the orders of nobleman Orhan Emmereth, a group of mercenaries are marching across the desert to reach the city of Sorlost, made vulnerable by years of decadence and excess. Once there, they are to kill the Emperor and all who support him. The company are men who are there to get the job done and get paid – however, one amongst their number has a checkered past, and enjoys killing rather more than the rest of them.
Orhan – Our chief schemer, he is a noble man of a major house torn between his duties. He sees that the empire has grown so decadent that it has become ripe for invasion, so he devises a coup in order to build his idea of a stronger, better empire.
Tobias – The sergeant of the mercenaries. A savvy man who knows his trade and understands his men. He’s more of an everyman than the other characters, and he’s smart enough to make logical decisions based on his current circumstances.
Marith – A recent recruit to the band of mercenaries, he is a dark and tormented character, alternating between states of bloodlust, self destruction and neediness.
Thalia – A high priestess, selected by chance in a brutal religion where human sacrifice is commonplace.
First and foremost, I’m going to need to talk about the quality of the prose in this novel and how divisive it will be for some readers. One thing that I find irks some people and delights others is when they expect one thing and are met with something else. For many fantasy readers, the prose is a vehicle which delivers the story to them, and little else. It’s largely unobtrusive, but a particularly prettily worded sentence might stand out for them once in a while.
Not so here.
In The Court of Broken Knives, Spark’s literary voice is so strong and distinct that it’s almost a character in its own right. This prose is the prose of literary fiction, and personally I found it to be a daring move on Spark’s part and exciting change from the usual fare. Think of unique voices in fiction like that of Cormac McCarthy and you’re heading down the right road. It may sound trite if I say that the author is painting with words, but it’s very much the case. There are many short punchy sentences, as well as use of repetition and rewording as characters process the horrific events that are happening to them and the world they inhabit. It’s beautiful and harrowing, and I loved all the ways in which my emotions were toyed with through simple word choice. However, there’s a chance that this won’t be your cup of tea and for that reason I strongly advise checking out the sample on Amazon. There are a few chapters included and it will certainly be enough to decide if this is going to enchant you or drive you up the wall. Highly stylized prose is not something that everyone enjoys, and there’s no right or wrong in that.
While on the surface it feels like the plot is just a loose series of things happening to the characters, it ends up building on itself quite nicely while staying unpredictable. There aren’t a bunch of well defined arcs and it isn’t neat and tidy, but it’s organic and I found it satisfying, particularly the scenes in which the coup begins. Our characters don’t change and grow so much as they adapt to new circumstances and information. Not that there aren’t some attempts to change on the parts of some characters, but these attempts are largely unsuccessful. The characters themselves are deep and complex but not particularly likeable, which some readers might struggle with. Tobias is probably the character I liked the most, but even he was by no means a good or moral person. Marith is the most interesting. He’s an absolute mess of a person – psychotic, drug addicted and at times absolutely gleeful about killing, but Spark does a great job of making me feel both pity and disgust for him.
Overall, this was a grimdark novel that read very differently than most – I found that I appreciated the lack of overly detailed descriptions of unnecessary violence that can sometimes be a hallmark of the subgenre. LGBTQ+ readers and allies may be pleased to find a sensitively handled gay relationship. There’s also a lack of rape scenes throughout, which has become such a tired and overused trope in grimdark that it barely elicits a yawn from me these days, much less the horror it attempts to invoke. And yet The Court of Broken Knives manages to be every bit as bleak and grim as the best of them.
Spark may have been kidding around when she made her Twitter handle @queenofgrimdark, but she wasn’t wrong. I’ll be looking forward to book 2.