Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

review by Maryom
The city of Sorlost stands at the heart of an empire that was once the richest the world had ever known. But its glory days are past. While titled families still play court to a puppet Emperor, and spend wildly and extravagantly on their own pleasures, the streets are filled with the desperate and homeless. Orhan Emmereth has decided it's time things were changed, and a band of mercenaries are heading across the desert to put his plans into action. They're a hotchpotch band of experienced fighters and raw recruits, but the strangest among their number is the youngster Marith, running away from something ( a common enough scenario for mercenaries) yet filled at times with a berserker killing rage beyond anything his comrades have seen, and somehow carrying a feel of impending doom or glorious destiny about him.
Meanwhile, in the temple in Sorlost, the High Priestess Thalia continues her routine of prayers and sacrifices, never wondering what lies beyond the enclosing walls ...

To be honest, I found it a little difficult to get started with this story - it has that problem frequently found in fantasy books (or even hulking great classics like Middlemarch or War and Peace) of such a huge cast of characters to be introduced within the first few chapters, that it can be hard to start to piece together the overall plot-line; I just got to grips with one group of characters and the story jumped elsewhere and to different players. If you find this, bear with it. Get past those first few chapters, and the book will grow on you - well, it did on me! Gradually, the scenario emerges - a decaying empire, someone eager to gain control of it, mercenaries with their own aims which may not run in the same course as their employer's, a young man hiding secrets in his past and a probably unfortunate destiny in his the future, and a beautiful woman dedicated since childhood as a priestess.
It has all the things I love in fantasy novels. The world-building is excellent, the writing rich and varied, and the characters behave as real people with human foibles, failings, and strengths. Yes, there are mages ready to whip up pyrotechnic displays, beautiful selkie women from the sea, even a dragon or two, but the story is powered by qualities we can recognise - ambition, fear, or desire - not the wave of a magician's wand.
If you love a tale in which alliances are made and broken, god and armies are ready to battle till no one's left standing, and trustworthy friends are as eager to betray you as your enemy is, then this is for you. Be warned though, the story is dark, violent, there's plenty of blood and gore, and the description of Marith's beserker rampages deeply unsettling. It's maybe odd then that the images and scenes which stood out most for me were of quieter moments -  the descriptions of the once glorious but now down at heel city of Sorlost, the desolate emptiness of the desert or its brief flowering after rain, Marith's delight in the seaside haunts of his childhood, and two lovers stealing a day away from treachery and death. Maybe it's something to do with the balance between the two aspects of the story but as the first book in a series it's grabbed me in a way that off hand I can only think of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice having done before. I just hope there isn't too long to wait for Book 2.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

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