Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Sparks review

      THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES is a grimdark political fantasy novel. Specifically, it is one of those novels which follows in the Game of Thrones tradition of the back and forth between various factions for control over a region. I should say this is actually a good deal darker than George R.R. Martin's work (no small feat) in the fact this is a book where there's no House Stark. Instead, it's the story of what would happen if you had only Tywin Lannister, Viserys Targareyn (if he had his ancestor Aegon the Conqueror's martial skill), a half-mad Sansa Stark after years of working as Melisandre, and the Hound as protagonists. As I can summarize best, "this book is dark as **** man."

    If my metaphor has gone over your head due to the fact you're not a A Song of Ice and Fire or Game of Thrones fan, allow me to rephrase: there's no heroes in this book. There's only protagonists. Every single one of them has innocent blood on their hands, including children, and it's rarely questionable the world would be better without them. Except, of course, that everyone else in the world is just as awful. For some people, that will send them screaming in the other direction but for others, like me, I found it quite fascinating to read.

    The premise is Orhan Emmereth, nobleman of Sorlost, has decided to mount a coup against the Emperor in order to reform its crumbling hollow shell. This requires sending an army of mercenaries he has no intention of allowing to live on a one-way suicide mission into the palace. Meanwhile, said mercenary group discovers they have a bonafide demigod among them with all the horrific mental problems of an Achilles on smack. Marith is a bloodthirsty psychopath but he's beautiful and capable of great deeds so he more or less gets away with whatever he does, no matter how much damage he does (or because of it).

    Marith, of course, complicates the suicide part of the suicide mission even though he's every bit as much a danger to his companions as his enemies. Rounding out the group is the high priestess, Thalia, is a woman who regularly sacrifices children on altars, who decides maybe there's more to life than being the instrument of a revolting cultural practice. She wants a handsome prince to whisk her away and isn't too particular about the fact the only one available is quite literally an insane murderer.

    The characters are all extremely well-developed with more than just the collection of their flaws. They're all broken people but you understand how the society as well as events have made them this way. Some of them are more sympathetic than others but sympathy is not what Anna Smith Spark asks for. Instead, she merely takes us on a wonderful ride to see who will still be standing when the dust settles.

    Ultimately, the story is more about the journey than the ending. It doesn't matter whether Orhan successfully fixes the Empire because the price for even trying has been his soul. Marith is a person with immense potential who squanders it in decadence and violence. If he actually does achieve anything, why should we cheer him on? Even Thalia is someone who has no real "right" to get a new life since she's done nothing for anyone but her self her entire life. They're all fascinating characters and have a Tarantino-esque quality of being completely unpredictable despite their ruthlessness.

    If you think I'm overselling the antihero qualities of them, trust me, I'm not but that's the appeal of the book. Dark, edgy, and violent storytelling from beginning to end. Definitely worthy of the title "grimdark."


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