Saturday 29 July 2017

The Court of Broken Knives (Empires of Dust #1), Anna Smith Spark

"This is Sorlost, the eternal, the Golden City. The most beautiful, the first, the last. The undying. The unconquered. The unconquerable.
The mummified heart of an empire of dust and desert villages, half forgotten by half the world. "
In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.

* *
2 / 5

I read quite a few rave reviews for The Court of Broken Knives: it's a grimdark novel featuring battles and gods and guts and glory. It seemed to tout all the elements that I love in a fantasy series: drama, assassins, different factions and a cheeky bit of political skulduggery, and, most of all, epicness. Unfortunately, I didn't really get into The Court of Broken Knives. Most of it's flaws - too long, a bit verbose, weird writing style - can be attributed to being a debut novel or my own personal preference (because after Flame in the Mist I am so very done with short dramatic sentences). So maybe it was just preference, but I just was not engaged by this book.  

Death is a bad thing. What a profound man you are, Orhan Emmereth

Briefly, there's a city, Solost. Solost, a city of gold and dreams and fortune, no longer. The Emperor of Solost is a weak man and his inferiors have decided to act. Enter Orhan Emmereth who hires a mercenary troop to sort out the perceived problem the old-fashioned way - cold, bloody murder with just a hint of magic. It's a solid fantasy plot and one that, in theory, I had no problem with. In execution, however, we didn't quite see eye to eye.

Before anyone accuses me of "not getting" Grimdark, I'm aware that half the point is for everyone to be utterly despicable. But there's a difference between being morally grey and just being straight up disgusting that, for me, Spark didn't manage to straddle. Unfortunately, I hated everyone, which is quite a feat considering how many points of view there are. I've loved Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea trilogy; the characters in them are morally heinous and they rape and pillage and do all sorts of disgusting things, but there's also cunning and wit and charm (not normally from the rapists, thankfully). It's not the blood or the violence either that I dislike, God knows Abercrombie is known for some rather brutal animal cruelty scenes.

Didn't really like sending the two of them out alone, Mr Grumpy and Mr Increasingly Frigging Weird, but there were things they needed that really couldn't wait. Clothes and whatnot. Things. And he could probably trust Marith. Yeah?

A big part of it was the characters. For a good handful of pages I wasn't even sure who the main character was. Not a good start. Pro tip: it's Marith, a boy running with a mercenary band who's really a descendent of some sort important demon-man. This makes Marith very special and man does it go to his insolent, annoying little head. I couldn't find a single thing to like about him between his entitled attitude and murderous rages; the closest I got was pity regarding his drug problem. Who I did like was Tobias, Marith's commander. He's the kind of grimdark character that I like: gritty, realistic, has his regrets but doesn't dwell too much on them. Tobias is a well damn, everything's gone to shit, fuck it I'd better start running kind of man, and we didn't get nearly enough of his POV.

Then there's the High Priestess of Lord Tanis of the Living and Dying. When she appeared I thought things might pick up; after all, the woman kills children on the altar as a sacrifice to the gods, I mean, she's got to be interesting, at least? No. Instead all we get once the characters all join up is her waxing lyrical about how beautiful Marith is. Oh, she thinks, he just murdered a bunch of people for no reason but maaaan those eyes it's like they're divine and my what luscious lips, and so forth. If a bunch of battle-scarred mercenaries told me a guy was bad news, I think I'd run no matter how cute his dimples were.

The darkness pressed on him, heavy and soft like falling snow. You look like what you are, boy. It was all the same, he realised, whether he looked into the dark of the room or into the dark of his own mind

The plot pacing was another point of issue for me. I have read and enjoyed fantasy epics - Brandon Sanderson is one of my favourite authors and he writes massive tomes - so the length itself wasn't the issue, it was just how it was used. I don't think it needed to be 400+ pages or, if it did, something should have happened that I cared about; I felt like things were happening but there was no obvious way for the novel to proceed. There was no goal, just events occurring. We also get the good ol' fantasy classic of the characters taking a months long trip across a desert. 

After my recent experience with Flame in the Mist where. Every sentence. Had ridiculous. Use of. Dramatic effect. I was a bit gutted to start The Court of Broken Knives and to be confronted with:

Half-dead men lying in the filth. Screaming. A whole lot of things screaming. Impossible to tell who's who anymore. Mud and blood and shadows and that's it. Kill them! Kill them all! Keep killing until we're all dead.

It's not all written like this, but enough is. Spark does write a number of hilarious one liners though; there were a couple of times when I genuinely snorted aloud.

"Not sure I really feel like fucking someone who is part god and part suicidal drunk, you know"

I do feel like this has been quite a negative review and whilst, obviously, I think I am entitled to my opinions, quite a few others have found this book to be amazing. So take what I say with a pinch of salt. I do think Spark has promise as a writer and I'll probably try something else of hers. I would genuinely recommend The Court of Broken Knives to those who like lots of main characters, characters that are not meant to be liked in any respect, and the lovers of the. short. dramatic. sentence. 

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for an ARC of this book. 

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