A company of mercenaries travel through a desert to a prosperous city to assassinate an Emperor. Among the mercs is a new recruit that shows his worth by killing a dragon, but boy oh boy, this kid has some baggage. The plan goes awry when the scheming lords out think themselves with twists galore. Elsewhere in the city, a High Priestess to a God that demands blood sacrifices grows weary from her chosen lot in life. During the attack on the Emperor, she escapes with the dragon-slaying boy and his surviving merc buddies. They set out toward his old home. Oh, not to mention, there is a metric sh*t-ton of killing in this book, blood galore.
Normally I do a breakdown of what works and what doesn’t but this story seriously doesn’t work for this process. There is so many things that just should flat out be wrong about this book, but, damn, it really does work. So the mold doesn’t work. Doesn’t work. The mold just doesn’t work…
I’ll be frank, the story itself isn’t that particularly groundbreaking, as it hits a ton of typical notes fantasy readers love. But that isn’t what makes this book special in my eyes. It’s the beauty in which the story is told.
Ok, so those last three lines of the first paragraph are a poor facsimile of the biggest thing that is “different” about this book. Most fantasy books, especially grimdark, (of which this book could be categorized) are written in a particular style – world-building, info dumps, and straightforward prose, along with some fascinating characters and magic systems. Not this book. TCoBK is written like a literary poem seen popular in the Transcendental Movement of the way-back-when. Sentences in Ms. Smith Spark’s book are not following grammar rules, rarely do sentences have both noun and verb, there are single sentences of emotions, and lots & lots of repetition.
It is really difficult to read at first because we are not accustomed to seeing that style within a SFF story (and most of us are not Lit Majors). But once you get into the story, (about 100 pages for me) the difficulty fades away and you start to appreciate how the beauty of the words magnify the events of the novel.
Here’s an example:
Marith sat and looked at his plate and felt their eyes on him. Pity. Mockery. Disgust.
Memories came to him. Sunshine on high moorland. Gray rocks tumbling into a gray sea. Beech mast crunching beneath his horse’s hooves, the light green and gold through the first new spring leaves. Men kneeling before him, women eyeing him with longing, a whole world at his feet. Gilded and pampered and lording it over everyone. Ruined and screaming and crawling blind in the dark.
Oh yes, he thought, I know what I am and what I’ve given up. Sometimes I even wonder why.
If that doesn’t paint you a scene within a character’s introspection, then nothing will. Trust me, this isn’t an easy read in terms of the word magic Ms. Smith Spark brandishes expertly, but when you get to the end, you realize it was a beautiful journey you just undertook.
One thing that I thought was super wonky and shouldn’t work is the use of Point of View in this book. There are four main characters – an old Gran Torino merc, a young “nobody” with strange behaviors, a High Priestess who drew the wrong lot in life, and the noble (rebel) with a cause that went awry. These characters are fun, they serve a purpose to the story (though see far below for my one major detractor of this story), but that’s not the issue. The issue lies in how the rest of the story unfolds using POV in general.
First, and I really don’t understand why Ms. Smith Spark would go this route, but the High Priestess character has chapters written in both close 3rd and 1st person POV. And it’s the 1st person that boggles my mind. Typically I dislike 1st person, but in this story it is just weird because the High Priestess is already a 3rd person character, yet when these 1st person interludes (for lack of better word) happen, they are almost like someone reading a diary of the High Priestess’ life. She goes on to explain the history of how she became the HP, what her duties are, what her emotions are to certain scenes unfolding. It makes no damned sense and I SHOULD hate it… But I didn’t. It was so odd, but I actually enjoyed these interludes, they added so much to the story that I applaud their use.
Additionally, there were other interludes that shouldn’t work either. We have short chapters about this God, this world-conquering God. These chapters are told from an omniscient POV. Hell, the first chapter is all about this God. We never really see this God, but we get to see the insanity and death that accompanies him. And then he goes away after the first half of the book, before you realize how this God plays into one of the character’s story at the very end. So strange to think this can work. And the other oddity is the use of the same character’s flashbacks to his childhood with his BFF/lover. The characters are never named (only using hair color to differentiate) but you know who they are. And the final chapter is a moment in time that nearly threatens to contradict all that happened before it.
None of this should work, but it all does. Such brave decisions made in isolation would never work, but they meld together into something great.
I would like to add the best thing about these four character POVs is that Ms. Smith Spark does an excellent job of making their voices distinct. The merc thinks and talks like a merc. His perception of events is ground in things he knows – blood, guts, swears, and coin. The young buck character has a background that would constitute him having a completely different voice, and he does. The High Priestess spent her entire life within the Temple, so she has this awe and bewilderment to her voice. And the noble is almost jaded with his life, so his thinking reflects that. What really works with these voices is that the chapters are written so differently from one another. The poetic prose mimics these characters’ voices. It’s perfectly done.
And the magic system – if you would call it that – isn’t really all that detailed. You really have no idea what the heck is going on, but since the prose is so beautiful, you suspend belief and it works. You could care less that it makes no sense, you just love seeing it happen.
My only real gripe with the story is the noble character. Sure, I get it, his plan to assassinate this Emperor (which fails obviously) is what brings all the characters together in this story, but after the first 3rd of the book where he is this big-time player, he basically disappears for the vast majority of the book. Yeah he has chapters here and there, but they really don’t do anything to serve the plot (hopefully more comes from him in the next two books). And I hate to think like this, but I almost felt his chapters were only meant to serve diversity (he has a male/male relationship). I’m all for diversity in my SFF, but this just felt added when it really didn’t need to be there (the one main character also had a male/male relationship), all the noble did was shuffle papers, eat food, and have sexual relations with his man. I kept waiting for some dramatic twist to come with his character, but it never did (aside from the most weakest attempt on his life ever), so it was a letdown (again, hoping more from him in book 2). But I still didn’t dislike his character at all, it was just like a simmer on the stove waiting for him to become a bigger role in the story.
5 out of 5.
The Court of Broken Knives isn’t perfect by any means, but I’d be hard pressed to say that I didn’t love this story. I can’t wait to dive back into this world Ms. Smith Spark created. It’s not a book everyone will enjoy, but if you like the art of storytelling, then you need to give this book a read.