Book Review: The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

The Judging Eye

Genre: Fantasy/Grimdark
Series: Empires of Dust
Author info: http://courtofbrokenknives.org/

This is going to be a bit emotional for me, but 100% honest. I have read a very early version of this book, kind of a beta read, before Anna had an agent or a publishing deal. I knew it was something unique and it ought to be mainstream published. My gut instinct and recognition skills were dead accurate: Something like two years later it got picked up by Harper Voyager, I screamed “Hell YES!” and bounced with joy as if it were my own book. So here goes your disclaimer. However, I do only honest reviews. Anyone knows me well enough knows I won’t review the books that aren’t my cup of tea of I don’t enjoy/DNF. I have refused reviews like this for books of folk I know, cause I can’t be dishonest and I don’t want to damage the ratings of a new debut just cause I don’t enjoy it.

This final published version of The Court of Broken Knives, however, has a lot of thing I enjoy in grimdark fiction, plus the stunning prose, beautifully detailed worldbuilding, culture and religion elements. The main plot of the story is noting unusual, but the storytelling is rich and amazingly unique. Here is a little snippet from the very beginning:

All eternity, they’ve been fighting. All the edges blunted. Sword edges and knife edges and the edges in the mind. Keep killing. Keep killing. Keep killing till we’re all dead.

The Court of Broken Knives is grimdark as grimdark goes. There’s rivers of blood and pools of vomit but also beautiful gardens with jasmine and lilac trees, colorful silks, marble palaces, desert wilderness and frost covered islands, and the most important aspect of grimdark: Highly intriguing, complex, deeply flawed, incredibly realistic characters.

There are four point of view characters: A mercenary commander, a new recruit in the mercenary company, a politician from the high nobility, and a high priestess.
None of those are the sort of people you would exactly root for, but their storylines are compelling in the extreme, and along with the beautiful, flowing, poetic prose they make The Court of Broken Knives a total page turner.

Speaking of the prose. This dreamlike, hypnotic prose makes the violence and gore scenes hell of a lot more brutal, too. I am a seaoned grimdark reader and pretty desensitized to gory fight scenes. Best way I can describe the effect here is a jackhammer wrapped in pretty brocade silk. Let me show one example from the book:

He must have been happy, sometimes, this man who would die before him under his knife. Must have looked at something once and thought ‘this is a good thing.’Must have loved and wanted and desired and hoped. And all of that he’d take from him, like it had never been.

This is not the best example of what I’m talking about but I’m taking pains not to spoil anything, so it should at least give a hint.

The most important character is Marith, the pretty boy who is a new recruit in a mercenary band. He is more than what he appears to be, and you can tell from the beginning. He turns out to be a highborn guy on exile, and then more and more is revealed. To keep this review spoiler free, that is the most I can say. Marith is one of the darkest characters I’ve ever read, he takes the grimdark to a whole another level. The main theme is a decaying empire with its gold veneer chipping away and oh so amazingly depicted.

He watched the weaving figures, twisting in a long spiralling pattern of stamping feet around the square, dancing and shouting and singing while the darkness ate at them. You will all die, his mind whispered. This brightness is only the surface. Beneath is the darkness: you will all die.

This is one of the rather tame ones, dude is DARK! But he is so much more than must a bloodthirsty psycho. Marith has mysterious magical powers, and a profound darkness in him. The magic business is quite a mystery, never explained. It just unfolds and you read with a dropped jaw. This doesn’t seem to be common in fantasy, since detailed magic systems seem to be the trend in the genre. I like the dark, mysterious, scary magic, and The Court of Broken Knives beautifully delivers. If you are sick of magic systems with endless lists of rules and components and whatnot, you will definitely love the magic here.

The Court of Broken Knives is a political intrigue fantasy, and one of the main characters is a plotting high lord who is ready to sacrifice lives for the greater good. The M/M romance between him and his partner in crime Darath is quite adorable. Their flirty bickering is funny and cute. If you are a fan of M/M relationships you will absolutely love it. They are all kinds of cute, but there is the element of tragedy, dark choices and guilty conscience trying to justify horrible deeds. It is a grimdark story, after all.

Thalia is the high priestess character, and some of her chapters are from the first person perspective, which works quite well with the flow. She is also a messed up victim of the culture and society, and we get to see the twisted and brutal religion of the Empire. The worldbuilding depth truly shines in those parts, giving a good glimpse of the culture and faith embedded deeply into daily life of the people of the empire. I don’t want to give too much away, but the whole twilight taboo culture reminded me of the superstitions we had in Turkey, that it is bad luck to do any sewing or repair works in the twilight hour, time between day and night is dangerous and you aren’t supposed to do handiwork or it will bring curses and bad luck.

Thalia is about as broken and flawed like the rest of the characters, she is strong at times, but cannot conjure her inner strength all the time. Which is hell of a lot more realistic than the invincible female hero model. There are no heroes in this book, anyway, there are just people who are trying to survive or escape from their demons in a harsh world.

I am a huge fan of rich worldbuilding, and The Court of Broken Knives has some excellent details like street food, cool trinkets, city scenery and every aspect of a major city from the grand palaces to drug dens,colorful and pretty gardens, as well as awesome wilderness scenes and an impressive harbor/fishing town part. Oh and there are dragons, too. Not as a major element, but they are part of the world, featured in a few neat scenes.

The Court of Broken Knives is an impressive debut, not only for grimdark subgenre but the fantasy genre as a whole. You are missing a damn lot if you aren’t reading it. I have feeling Marith will end up one of the milestone characters of Grimdark, like Logen Ninefingers, Jorg Ancrath and Sand dan Glokta.

Bookshelf show off: The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Look what I got in the mail! 

*happy dance*

I’m about to finish Gardens of the Moon, expect my review of this beauty next!

Quint von Canon’s illustrations are so stunning. The map is superb, too. 

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Books I Added To my TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly blog meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week’s theme is the most recent additions to TBR and here goes my list of ten books I recently added to my ever growing mountain of TBR:

Faithless

Swarm and Steel

Godblind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faithless by Graham Austin-King has a stunning cover and promises one hell of an epic adventure in the underground mines. I loved his Riven Wyrde Saga books (check my reviews here) and have high expectations of this one after reading the excerpt.

Swarm and Steel is a Manifest Delusions book, I loved the first two and looking forward to the release of this. Michael R. Fletcher has a track record of delivering top notch grimdark, I can’t recommend his books enough!

Godblind is a totally random discovery, recommended by a friend from the FB fantasy book groups I frequent. He showed me the first chapter posted on a giveaway contest page, I absolutely loved it and pre-ordered Godblind. It’s a debut, grimdark as grimdark goes, brutal to the core, and written by a female author if you are looking for diverse books.

 

Valley of Embers

Smiler's Fair

The Glass Gargoyle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valley of Embers is a SPFBO contestant this year, I grabbed it from the free promo cause the cover is great+I liked the sample excerpt on Kindle store. It sounds like a nice, original epic fantasy with cool battles and magic.

Smiler’s Fair is highly recommended by a friend who told me the cover looks like YA but the book is gritty, awesome fantasy. She knows my tastes more or less so I trust her rec and added it.

The Glass Gargoyle is another SPFBO contestant, the author announced free promo, I totally loved the sample excerpt which features a nice tavern setting and hilarious banter. This book promises a great light reading and funny fantasy experience, plus I like gargoyles and never read any fantasy books featuring gargoyles.

 

A Gathering of Ravens

Assassin's Charge

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gathering of Ravens sounds like my cup of tea since it’s set in a world of Norse myths and features an Orc protagonist, plus Scott Oden is a cool guy and writes cool blog posts waving Orcs into the world history in a clever way. The blog posts sold me on his writing and the whole Norse myths and grimdark Orc protagonist surrounded with morally ambiguous side characters sold me on the book.

Assassin’s Charge was a finalist in last year’s SPFBO, the blog reviews and the premise got me to put it high up in my TBR since I’m a huge fan of assassins, guilds and pre-modern city environment.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a book folk speak very highly of on Reddit and Fantasy book groups all over the place, my grimdark fan friends said it’s a grimdark masterpiece and I would definitely like it, so I have quite high expectations from this book.

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids

 

Amra Tethys books sound exactly like my cup of tea and some of my friends highly recommended the book. Thieves, rogues, immortal sorcerers, epic artifacts, gods, demons -this book sounds like it will be hell of a lot of fun to read! I’m a total fan of thief fantasy with lots of magic and fantasy elements, so I expect grat fun from this book.

What is in your TBR? Link to your post and let me know!

 

Exciting New Releases This Summer

These will be my summer reads.

The Unholy Consult
I have been waiting for the Unholy Consult forever, even held off on reading the Aspect-Emperor books for ages until the release date was certain for TUC. This series is such a magnificent masterpiece of grimdark and epic fantasy, one of the best examples of the fantasy genre in fact. You can read my reviews of all the books in the series here: https://leonahenry.wordpress.com/?s=bakker

 

The Court of Broken Knives

I have beta read a very early version of this book ages ago, I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear about the publishing deal and finally getting a publication date. This will probably be quite a bit different from that very early version I think, can’t wait to read and find out. It’s super grimdark but without a setting mostly covered in puke, piss, rot and other gross things. There is dazzling architecture, grand temples, palaces, beautiful gardens, spiced with utterly savage violence and serious nightmare fuel acts. The characters are so grimdark it’s not even funny!

 

Godblind

 

A friend of mine told me to check this new debut out, and showed me a giveaway page where they had a free sample from the very beginning of the book. I was mighty impressed by the grimdarkness and how Anna Stephens made the characters so memorable in such a short space, I pre-ordered a copy. I heard the book delivers the top notch quality promised by the sample. I can’t wait to read it!

 

 

A Gathering of Ravens

 

Historical fantasy with an Orc protagonist and Norse myths pretty much sold me on that one. Not to mention the grimdark and all of the characters being morally ambiguous. I love books where no one is good or evil. Also I’ve never read any historical fantasy, this should be a good way to begin. It sounds like a pretty solid read judging from the Goodreads reviews.

What are you reading this summer?

Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

Gardens of the Moon: First Impressions

Gardens of the Moon

I keep seeing comments from first time readers about Gardens of the Moon all over the social media, so I couldn’t resist it anymore and abandoned my original plans to get into Malazan after finishing the Wheel of Time and The Prince of Nothing re-read. Fuck it, the curiosity is killing me, I can’t take the torture anymore.

I dropped everything, now reading WoT book #4 in parallel with Gardens of the Moon.

Here are my first impressions: I just finished the prologue and found it quite captivating. I was expecting some confusing mess, since everyone and their brother talks about how difficult and confusing it is. I usually forget the prologues within 5 minutes, can’t keep track of the characters and don’t really understand wtf is going on. A Game of Thrones prologue was the exception. Gardens of the Moon prologue however, hooked me from page 1, characters are memorable and both the imagery and the dialogues are neat. I have a good grasp of what’s going on as far as the prologue goes, it’s pretty normal, ie.not some crazy tangle of hyperactive insanity.

I guess I have to read further to see what’s all the noise about?

Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker

The Great Ordeal

Genre: Fantasy/Grimdark
Series: Aspect-Emperor
Author info: http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/

This is the third book of Aspect-Emperor,the sequel series after The Prince of Nothing. You will need to read The Prince of Nothing books for the story to make sense. The starting point is The Darkness That Comes Before.

Here are my reviews for previous books in the series (First one is spoiler free, but the following reviews inevitably have spoilers for the previous ones)

The Darkness That Comes Before (book #1)

The Warrior Prophet (book #2)

The Thousandfold Thought (book #3)

The Judging Eye (book #4)

The White Luck Warrior (book #5)
To be honest, after that mind-blowing epic ‘slog of slogs’ Cil-Aujas adventure in The Judging Eye and its just as epic conclusion in White Luck Warrior, I didn’t expect anything to top that. Boy was I wrong! The mind-blowing levels went up in the Nonman mansion Ishterebinth parts. The long-abandoned Nonman abode in The Judging Eye was bone-chilling creepy and amazing, and the inhabited Nonman mansion here is even more awesome and unimaginably grimdark in its macabre majesty.

The Great Ordeal delivered more than I expected. There are several POV threads and plot arcs as usual. I had a hunch that Sorweel was going to get better from the very first encounter, and it did. Sorweel’s character development dials up to 11 and it was the most impressive slow character development I have seen since the first three books of Wheel of Time. But more on that later.

Esmenet parts were going between glory and pathetic tragicomedy. Her ability to hold the things together after the power vacuum caused by the long absence of Kellhus and the assassination of Maithanet -which she engineered- and how she ‘talks oil’ to control the imperial dignitaries and the Thousand Temples apparati is impressive, while her complete ignorance of her youngest son being a bloodthirsty, diabolical psycho makes it tragicomical.

Kelmomas is following the mysterious White Luck Warrior around the palace, as you follow him through the POV of Kelmomas, the inscrutable motives and inhuman qualities of the so-called divine assassin casts a strong aura of suspense and horror. White Luck Warrior is enigmatic and scary, following him from the eyes of a murderous little psycho brat and seeing his awe and fear for the inhuman assassin was a great deal of fun to read.

Some folk found the Great Ordeal marching parts unnecessarily long and dragging, but I beg to disagree. In the end of The White Luck Warrior, Kellhus gave the order to feed on the horribly tainted Sranc meat, and this brings a whole new macabre aspect to the already creepy plot enshrouded in Lovecraftian horror. I can’t say any more without wading into the spoiler territory, but it shall suffice to say these parts are grisly and haunting, spiced with battle action and savagery darker than the previous books.

There are some cool twists and turns, which I didn’t see coming even after reading all of the books. Kellhus became inscrutable and his parts through the POV of Proyas, as well as the very small POV of his own are so twisted and weird, it is hard to determine his motives at that point. Proyas is quite different from the one I know from the Prince of Nothing, he has sacrificed a lot and changed quite a bit.

But my favorite without question was the Ishterebinth chapters. The true extent of the doom and suffering of Nonmen is laid bare in a most tragic way. The emotional intensity rivals that of Robin Hobb books, and Sorweel’s deep understanding of the Nonmen -against whom he has been prejudiced for a lifetime due to his cultural conditioning- through a magical artifact, seeing their past through one of their own minds and being a witness from the point of view of two souls is incredibly sad, haunting and deep. Current condition of the last standing Nonman mansion, beautifully woven with flashbacks giving glimpses of its past glory is perhaps one of the most touching parts after Cleric’s reactions to Cil-Aujas in The Judging Eye.

All in all, The Great Ordeal is a superb book and sets the tensions for the upcoming Unholy Consult while resolving a good deal of threads and raising new ones.

I am not too happy about the fact that this whole series is so underrated despite its superior literary quality, impressive depth of characters and incredibly detailed and original worldbuilding. One thing I found truly mind-blowing is the whole series being pure epic fantasy without being derivative at all. Some core tropes of epic fantasy in fact exist, but you need to look long and hard to recognize any of it.

What can I say? I will be counting days until my pre-ordered copy of The Unholy Consult arrives on my e-reader!

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Most Unique Books I’ve Read

toptentuesday

Top ten tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish and this week’s theme is the most unique books.

1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

The great Silmarillion remains one of a kind to this day, even after gazillions of fantasy books published since. Its format is like a holy scripture and it is not the kind of thing casual fantasy readers could get into, but the stories are captivating. It remains an all time favorite for the cult fans, and for good reason.

2. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

This book was a total shock and awe package for me as a fantasy fan who got the taste of grimdark with A Song of Ice and Fire. Even after reading a number of grimdark books, it still remains unique with the villainous, messed up protagonist who ended up being one of my all time favorites. See my review here.

3. Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

This book is horribly underrated due to its terribly dull cover (it’s not just me, quite a few book blogger friends also found it a total turn off) and it is quite original and unique for fantasy and grimdark. All of the main characters are horrible people, yet still likeable, and the source of magic being delusions makes an original and fresh magic system. See my review here.

4. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

A criminally underrated grimdark masterpiece, The Darkness That Comes Before is the first book of an awesome epic fantasy series without any of the tired tropes and cliches of epic fantasy. In other words, this series has Tolkien-Tier worldbuilding without ripping off Tolkien’s races, tropes and quests. Folk think Asoiaf is the revolutionary fresh breath that changed the fantasy genre, but Bakker’s series does the realism without sacrificing the magic and fantasy elements, and without making it 100% human like Asoiaf. I am a huge fan of Asoiaf, don’t get me wrong, but The Second Apocalypse books are nine kinds of awesome and it’s a crime they aren’t selling hundreds of millions and getting a TV show. See my review.

5. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

I discovered this book after SPFBO review and Mark Lawrence’s recommendation, and I must say it is quite a fresh new breath in the genre. I’ve read a lot of fantasy and literary fiction, never seen anything quite like Senlin Ascends. It’s kind of a genre bender blending Steampunk fantasy with magical realism with an amazing literary prose, memorable characters and entirely original and fascinating worldbuilding. See my review.

6. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I don’t think there is anyone who reads my blog that hasn’t read this one since it was such a huge hit. It was perhaps one of the most unique I have read in any genre: It has no plot at all, no relatable characters and an unreliable narrator, but still makes you turn pages well into the wee hours cause of the interesting adventures, superb worldbuilding and beautiful poetic prose. See my review.

7. Fae – The Wild Hunt by Graham Austin-King

This was one of the few indie books I’ve read and turned out to be surprisingly unique and original. It overturns cliches and features a neat setting with different cultures and shades of grey. Fae appear to be the bad guys at first, but as you read the rest of the trilogy, things turn out to be far more complex than they initially seem. See my review.

Now that I ran out of unique fantasy books (there are sequels to pretty much all of the books I listed so far, but the first ones are always the unique ones you know!) the rest of the list is going to be the books I have read when I was much younger and before I got into fantasy genre.

8. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

This is not a fantasy book. It’s a rather thin, 112 page literary classic and remains as one of the most unique books I have read in my lifetime. Partly because the protagonist and all the characters were seagulls and it wasn’t a children’s book.

9. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais

This one is not a fantasy book either, it is a superb tome of classic early Renaissance literature, first published in the 16th century and caused a huge scandal for brutally satirizing the church, state, law, education, pretty much all aspects of the civilization of its day and featuring vulgar scenes.
The most unique aspect is the unusual, no holds barred use of language, including but not limited to Rabeleis using made up words such as morecrocastebezasteverestegrigeligoscopapopondrillated, the prose is awesome even in translation (if you happen to pick one of the better translations, that is. People who speak French are lucky they can read this masterpiece in its original language. How I envy them!)

The word “gargantuan” originates from the giant protagonist in here, not to mention Aleister Crowley named his occult order after the Temple of Theleme depicted in this awesome book. Crowley also took Rabeleis’s motto “Do What You Will” as the motto of his Thelemic order. The book is in the public domain and can be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg or you can buy it super cheap from the second hand market.

Despite its age of whopping 6 centuries, it remains incredibly entertaining, unique and timeless. Many parts of this book could have been written yesterday, for many issues it satirizes sadly still exist today. Also it is notorious for featuring tons of fart jokes and toilet humor, along with philosophical discourses, booze propaganda and unicorns.

You can read this vulgar, grotesque and hilarious book and look cool & intellectual cause it’s a 16th century classic 🙂

10. The Trial by Franz Kafka

This is a weird, dark, gloomy and disturbing book, it’s nothing like a normal novel. There is no regular plot and nothing much happens, but it is quite obvious that the layers of allegories and metaphors take a snipe at totalitarianism and brutal bureaucracy on the surface, and the society as a whole. It has an abrupt ending which seems to make no sense, but if you sit down and think about it, it does. I’ve read this book as a teenager (when everyone else was reading Dragonlance, Conan and Elric books, this was the sort of stuff I was reading back then!) and this is really not the kind of book teenage girls read, but it kept my ADHD riddled mind turning the pages, and my mother’s then extremely gloomy workplace with the mechanical calculator machines, endless typewriter clicks and shelves full of dusty folders and ancient tomes re-enacted the setting of the book so the effect was highly amplified – as I mostly read it after school at my mom’s office. I highly recommend this book to people who love grimdark, cause Kafka wrote grimdark before grimdark was cool.

What is your top ten? Let me know in the comments!