Review: The Court of Broken Knives

Posted: June 9, 2021 by in Books We Like...and Hate (3.4/5 single_star) Meta: Anna Smith Spark, Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Back during one of my interminable years of college, I was able to take Sanderson’s Creative Writing course. This was before things took off for him with the Wheel of Time. Mostly I just took the class because I’d begun to dabble with writing my own stuff–instead of just reading–and the teacher happened to be a local author of some minimal renown. Deal. One of his lectures that semester was about how to use perspective and point of view in our stories, and we talked about all sorts of things, not the least of which was the several options we had to choose from.

I remember one question in particular from our discussion being about mixing first-person and third-person POVs within a single book. My recollection is that he said something along the lines of “being careful” but that you could do it, if you wanted to. That’s not something you come across very often though: first- and third-person POVs in the same book. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read a book that did things that way.

Well, not before this one, anyhow.

THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES is the first in a dark fantasy trilogy from debut author Anna Smith Spark. I’d heard quite a bit of buzz about this book around the time that the second in the trilogy was released, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. Then she made a comment on Twitter about being on a convention panel with Steven Erikson and how he’d said that he liked her book.

So, I decided that I should probably read the thing. I mean, if Erikson liked it…

The story concerns the impending overthrow of one of the richest empires the world has ever known. Told mainly through the perspectives of four POV characters, we see the work of a band of mercenaries that have been hired to kill the Emperor. Two of the characters come from this crew of hired men: its captain and a young, new recruit. Another is a politician living in the capital city where the emperor resides, and the final is the high priestess of the temple of the empire’s gods.

As far as setups go, that was a good one. The author’s way with words is pretty impressive, and this is apparent right from the get go. The first chapter was… let’s say “potentially confusing” with the way in which it was written. Took me a bit to fall into it, but once I did, the game of trying to walk away from the book was all but lost. Great world-building, nearly all brought to light through the character’s interactions with it. Nice sense of place and surroundings. The author doesn’t coddle the reader by laying everything out, but neither did I find myself confused as to what was happening.

This is writing done right.

Nearly everything works for this debut novel of dark fantasy. THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES both pleases and annoys in nearly equal measure.

The world itself, felt very similar to what we’ve had fed to us by stories like Song of Ice and Fire: empires, soldiers, minimal magic, and dragons. There are times when low levels of speculative elements in a story bother me. Obviously, there are some stories where that just doesn’t happen. This was one of the latter.

Characterization is on point throughout the length and breadth of the book. Solid perspective and focused writing made it easy to get a sense for who these people are, where they are coming from, and what they expect to find in the coming days. I did have some difficulty in the transitions between characters. Especially when the perspective jumped between first- and third-person. Later in the book, even the same character started jumping between these two perspectives though, and that moved me from “finding it diffcult” to “being mildly annoyed”.

Even though characterization was one of the high points of this read, it was also, very surprisingly, one of the lowest points as well. This because the longer I read, and the further I got into the story, the more it began to feel like I was just missing something. I thought I understood everything. It was all laid out, and so well at that.

Then came the first twist, and I realized what had been missing: singular, major points of character that dealt primarily with motivation. When the second “twist” came, I found it to be of the same flavor. Again, an integral part of the character of interest had been held back purposefully, and then revealed at a particular point in time to provide a “twist”. Over and over again this happened, except, of course, at the end. By the end of the book, I knew that I had no idea why the characters were doing what they were doing, because there was no last-page reveal waiting there for me. Talk about a let down.

This selective apportioning of the character and their motivations made the climax of the book mostly pointless for me. Despite the fact that there’s a big battle, crazy amounts of people die, and more bloody betrayal that I wasn’t expecting… I found that I mostly didn’t care what happened.

I can totally see why people liked this book. The author does a really great job with just about every aspect of the storytelling process. The ones where she failed for me, dampened my enjoyment of the book to considerable degree. I would love to be able to pick up the next in this series and find that the author doesn’t use this method of providing “twists” in her story. In fact, if I did, I think she’d find herself up in my ranks of favorite authors pretty quickly. That’s how much I enjoyed everything else. So, I can’t help but think that someday, along down the road, I’ll bounce into the second book and take a peek at what she made of it.

  • Recommended Age: 16+, mostly for violence
  • Language: Strong but somewhat infrequent
  • Violence: Bloody and violent, a-la Abercrombie
  • Sex: Frequent references and a few somewhat detailed scenes (hetero/homo)

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