Ladies of Grimdark: The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

by Justine Bergman
Ladies of Grimdark: Anna Smith Spark

SERIES: Empires of Dust
PUBLISHED: June 29, 2017 by HarperCollins (UK), August 15, 2017 by Orbit (US)
PAGES: 470
GENRE: Grimdark Fantasy, Epic Fantasy




They’ve finally looked at the graveyard of our Empire with open eyes. They’re fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust.

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.



Nothing is pointless, as long as one is alive. One moment of beauty. One moment of happiness. One moment of pain.

Lives for living. Nothing less and nothing more.

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark is an unyielding and opulent tale of the balance of extremes: living and dying, darkness and light, truth and lies – all of life is a balancing act, and this book showcases the everlasting struggle of keeping the scales leveled. With strong focus on the brutalities of self-loathing and self-doubt as one falls into the boundless abyss of despair, it celebrates overcoming these curses to become the powerful person hiding beneath the surface. Emotionally taxing, it focuses on the horrid effects of distrust and treachery, and takes us on an adventure whose paths are paved with blood and grime. This book…this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read, and one I’ll presumably never see the likes of again. To sum it up: it’s magnificent.

Smith Spark’s writing is absolutely superb. Poetic, raw, and emotional, the prose is immaculate and beautifully lyrical, deliberately and seamlessly shifting to jarring and choppy fragments in order to deliver readers directly into the shattered minds of her characters. I will admit, I originally read The Court of Broken Knives in 2017, but I was severely unprepared for this ambitious pilgrimage – this isn’t just a book to be read, it’s a masterpiece that needs to be carefully savored. Eloquently pictorial, the visuals conveyed through words throughout are just so completely tangible, making this an impressively immersive narrative – the relentless cold seeping into bones, the shocking fear and disgust of cruel butchery, the appalling stink of putrid wounds and viscera – we experience it all alongside those of which the story is being told.

He turned his face to it, tears running down his face, because it was beautiful and alive.

The cast that populates these pages are some of the most wonderfully complex, largely conflicted, and gloriously wretched characters I’ve ever become acquainted with. Each is troubled and weighed down by the heavy responsibilities and expectations resting on their shoulders. Adhering to these expectations forces them to evolve into someone or something they’re not, and Smith Spark doesn’t explicitly define anything for you. The joy is in the journey of discovering everyone’s secrets and tragic flaws for yourself along the way. It’s important to keep in mind that you’re not meant to like these characters – they’re all contemptible, murderous, debased – but it grows increasingly difficult to ignore the empathy crawling and clawing in the back of your mind. Oh, Marith, you broken and beautiful monster, Prince of Ruin.

There is an underlying romantic element weaved throughout – a forbidden affair between two powerful and harrowing individuals that lie at opposite ends of the defined societal spectrum. Again bringing into account the battle between the cold dark and the warm light, you’d expect their relationship to be one of turmoil, and you’d be right. However, theirs is one defined by a deep passion and solidarity. Each the mortar to fill the other’s fractured soul. Each bringing an unexpected peace the other never knew to be attainable. It’s beautiful. It’s awful. It’s erotic. It’s tragic.

Night comes. We survive.

This book is just the beginning of a grand journey, and much of it is filled with roaring, whispered promises of what’s to come. I’m really hesitant to delve into the plot, because this is one you need to explore on your own as the story unfurls. Anything I tell you won’t even begin to capture the essence of the venerable menace that awaits you. I will, however, tell you the world we’re transported to is a living, breathing behemoth defined by invisible boundaries and extremes. The golden and crumbling city of Sorlost, the dense forests of Immish, the storm-wracked waters of the Bitter Sea, and the frosted, cold, and harsh roads of The White Isles. Descriptions are bold paint strokes across the pages, bringing an almost absurd level of reality. It’s gorgeous and terrifying in equal measure.

I can continue to gush, but nothing I say will give this book its due. Anna Smith Spark has well earned her illustrious title of the Queen of Grimdark by delivering us into this ghastly and melancholic world where the land is drenched in blood, and the air is choked with dust and ash. The Court of Broken Knives is the most stunning and devastating debut novel I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the Empires of Dust series has to offer. If you haven’t yet gotten around to this book, just go and read it.

My Rating: 5

The Spotlight

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed grimdark epic fantast trilogy Empires of Dust. The David Gemmell Awards shortlisted The Court of Broken Knives is out now with HarperVoyager/Orbit; The Tower of Living and Dying will be published August 2018.

Annalives in London, UK. She loves grimdark and epic fantasy and historical military fiction. Anna has a BA in Classics, an MA in history and a PhD in English Literature. She has previously been published in the Fortean Times and the poetry website Previous jobs include petty bureaucrat, English teacher and fetish model.

Anna’s favourite authors and key influences are R. Scott Bakker, Steve Erikson, M. John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault.  She spent several years as an obsessive D&D player. She can often be spotted at sff conventions wearing very unusual shoes.

Anna is represented by Ian Drury at Sheil Land.


Thanks so much for joining us, Anna. Since we already have your official bio, care to tell us about yourself in ten words or less?

Classicist, post-modernist, shoe-fetishist. Aspie, dyslexic, dyspraxic. Pro-vaccine campaigner. Chocoholic.  #teamconsult

What is “Grimdark”?

Argghhh!!!! The question. The question.  

I’ve written and spoken about this several times, and my answer has evolved each time. For me, grimdark is truth to reality. War is horrifying, an abomination, and yet humanity has waged war incessantly throughout our history, has celebrated above all others those who have prowess in war. If you look at Tolkien, the stark reality of war is depicted: the war is necessary, yes, the victory glorious, but both the world and the individual characters’ lives are irreversibly changed by the pity of war. Tolkien knew war. It’s only later epic fantasy that takes the heroic epic fantasy people like Tolkien were writing and utterly neuters it. Violence becomes a very uncomplicated, fun game. Grimdark returns us to that darker place where violence is shown in its terrible reality. That’s urgently important.

That’s not to say that grimdark is without wonder and glory. The romance of fantasy is what makes it compelling for me, the breath-taking romance of being transported to a stranger, more beautiful, enchanted world, a world of wonder and magic. I want to evoke wonder, to create a strange, beautiful, numinous world. But grimdark is about making the wonder even richer, by showing the terror of it also. Awesome in every sense.  Interestingly, a lot of the best military writing, Das Boot, War and Peace, contain some uncanny elements within them. There’s a folk horror weirdness to a lot of military fiction because war is so inscribed with superstition, ritual, the inexplicable (I was saved, the man next to me in the trenches died – why? Why?), the numinous, constant, terrible weight of death and god. The world of war is a weirdly enchanted place.

What about the Grimdark and Dark Fantasy genres appeals to you most?

See above. Grimdark is just how I write, what I see when the words come. How I see the world, I suppose, and how I’m trying to make sense of it.

I read and watched a lot of fantasy and mythology as a child, and the darker side of the stories always appealed to me. I remember watching the terrible Dungeons and Dragons cartoon and being enraptured by Tiamat. She’s a feminist icon, surely – the uncontrolled female orgasm, even the Dark Lord fears her, cannot control hers, she’s beyond good or even, just chaos, power, she doesn’t necessarily want anything she just is. I was haunted/fascinated by the witch in The Chronicles of Narnia, that terrible scene in The Silver Chair where she persuades our heroes that the beautiful world outside her cave is unreal, that the sun is only a lamp. The Morrigan in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: I can still feel the horror and fascination I felt on first reading the scene where the children being hunted by her hounds through the tunnels beneath Alderly Edge. The Black Rider and the White Rider and the wretched Walker in the Dark is Rising series. I loved the Norse myths, the world being created from the rotting body of a murdered giant, the world ending in war and fire and blood. The Mabinogion, the maimed horses, the severed heads. Beowulf. The terrible, savage beauty of the language in these stories. That’s always been what I want to write. And I spent the time I wasn’t reading walking around the Cornish moors, the East Anglian salt marshes, the fens, poking around standing stones and medieval churches. There’s a lot of very strange folk horror in those places that I soaked up – I’ve seen Black Shuck’s clawmarks on the door of Blythbrough church, I’ve climbed three times through Men a Tol. I’ve listened out for the bells of a drowned city to ring (they didn’t ring).

What’s a day of writing like in the shoes of Anna? Do you have any quirks, routines, or rituals?

I rarely write more than 1,500 words a day. More than that and I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted. 1,000 words is typical. And I certainly don’t write every day, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve written so far and what I’m going to write. I read a lot, too, spent far more time reading other people’s books than I do writing, first because I’d go mad if I didn’t read for at least an hour a day every day and second because reading widely keeps my own writing alive. Without a constant input of other voices, ideas, perspectives, writing can become very stagnant. I don’t ‘research’ per se, but I read a lot of non-fiction, mostly military history, travel writing, biography, to immerse myself in other times and places. I learned to type writing essays at university, chain-smoking while typing a thousand words a minute into the small hours of the morning, swearing loudly. This means that 1) I type very fast with one finger of my left hand even though I’m right-handed and 2) I need a hot drink or a snack constantly in my right hand in lieu of a cigarette. Also I listen to the same three ‘lucky’ CDs on repeat. I learned to stop swearing loudly soon after I started my first office job.

What comes first, the plot or the characters?

Both. Neither. Everything comes together in a rush, I’ll start writing not really knowing what I’m writing, just an image, a line of dialogue, a landscape, even a stupid joke I want to write, and then slowly the whole thing emerges as I’m writing it.

What do you think makes a good story?

Unanswerable. A good story is beautifully written, or emotionally wrenching, or funny, or gripping, or … A million different things make different stories worth reading. Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is, um, not exactly literary fiction, but it’s absurdly gripping, the man’s a genius at driving the reader on, I stayed up all night for a week reading. Eddison’s A Fish Dinner in Memison has no plot, nothing happens, it’s very hard in retrospect to make any real sense of it, but it’s impossibly beautiful, haunting, it utterly obsessed me.

Give us an idea of how The Court of Broken Knives came to fruition.

Honestly, I don’t know. I began writing and the story came pouring out. A scene of violence, men in the desert, dry heat, that white strange desert light[1]. Rain in the desert, and a man who is heart-broken by the beauty of it. I still love that early scene with Marith in the desert rain so much. The world and the characters slowly revealed themselves to me as I was writing, most of the reveals and discoveries came as reveals as much as they did to the other characters. I was discovering the world and the characters as I wrote, it really like I as there with them, travelling with them and experiencing the story with them. And throwing in things as I was writing because I loved them – I had to have the desert rain, because the smell of water poured to damp down the dust in a Cairo street is a smell that will stay with me forever; I had to have selkies because they’re sad and beautiful; the salt-marsh and the moorlands Marith and Thalia ride through are the parts of the English countryside that mean more to me than anywhere else in the world. After a year, I’d written a book. Everything I love, everything I feel about fantasy, all the stories I’d told myself over the years about characters who I now understand as Marith and Thalia in embryo – all of that had poured out to create Empires of Dust. The story and the world always existed in me. I just had to find the doorway in.

That was an amazing year. Changed everything for me. I’d been very unhappy for a long time, finding myself as a writer made me see myself very differently.

Equally, I don’t think I’d have begun writing if I hadn’t recently been diagnosed as Asperger’s. I’d wanted to write all my life but hadn’t had the courage to do so since I was a child. The diagnosis changed the way I saw myself, freed me to write.

[1] Strictly speaking, it was a strange white dessert light. The geographical location wasn’t changed until quite late in the editing process. It could have been a very, very different book.

Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?

All three books contain the word ‘pension’. I moonlight as a pensions nerd and had to get it in.

The series is full of references to things I like, books I’ve read, people I know, place I loves, buried in the text. I’ve scavenged stuff from all over, Asterix, Keats, Homer, Leonard Cohen. The rock Tobias sits under in chapter two of Broken Knives is from The Waste Land. The drum Darath almost buys in The House of Sacrifice is a homage to Gunter Gras. I had Tobias quote Winnie the Pooh at one point (‘How did he die?’ ‘In the usual way, if you know what I mean’ but sadly had to edit it out because that whole paragraph had to go.

You’ve mentioned Bakker being a huge influence, but the series seems to have roots steeped in poetry and Greek tragedy – were there specific sources you consulted? Was there anything else you drew inspiration from while writing this book?

Classical literature and poetry are two huge parts of my life, I grew up steeped in them. My BA was in classics. I had the questionable privilege of having to translate the passage of the Iliad where Achilles appears on the plain of Troy in his new armour, shining like the Dog Star Sirius, from the original Greek as part of my finals exams; I studied Alexander the Great and the Successors period under one of the world’s leading experts on the Hellenistic Era. My father is a poet and a poetry editor and critic in the modernist/post-modernist tradition (see; he’s very interested in mythology, ancient history, the history of poetry. My house as a child was filled with books, trips to the theatre and to museums, serious discussion about literature. It was an amazing privileged upbringing, yes, I look back and I’m so grateful. All of that just poured out when I was writing. The White Isles battle poetry, for example, is based on Celtic and Anglo-Saxon battle poems, full of kennings; the Sorlostian erotica Marith is so keen on is based on Persian love poetry; I very consciously used Homeric similies and expression such as ‘black ships’ or ‘shining hair’. It seemed very natural and fitting – and irresistible. All fantasy is mythological fan fic, so let’s really, really go with it. Marith’s story is obviously based on both Achilles and Alexander the Great, two of my great life-long passions. Landra’s story-arc in The House of Sacrifice is kind-of based on Euripides’ Hecuba, hence the repeat references to the black dog.

I worked on the con languages (again, irresistible, how can anyone building a world not want to create a language as a part of it) to the point that you can, I think, work out what Marith and Thalia’s names mean in Itherilik and the rune language of the White Isles. Most mythologies have names that mean things, omen names, explanatory names, I really wanted to do that. I’ve studied philology, and runes, magic words, other languages are again something that have always fascinated my father and then me.

What do you hope your readers take away from The Court of Broken Knives?

Beauty. Sadness. An odd kind of hope.  

The most wonderful thing is when people say they can see the scenes in their minds very clearly, that my writing has really evoked a cinematic sense of immersion in them. The wonder of the language, that pleasure in the language is so central to my writing – I want to be read for feeling, for the pleasure of the words, as much as for the story itself.

And occasionally people thank me for writing Darath and Orhan. It shouldn’t have to be a big thing that I wrote a ‘gay but not in any way defined by or limited by or remotely bothered by their sexuality’ couple with dark skin, but sadly it still is, and it’s good to think that even one person felt more represented in sff as a result. The end of Empires of Dust as a whole … I want readers to think about a whole lot of things that neither I nor anyone else alive can properly answer, but that need to be thought about.

You’ve been a huge proponent of the Pixel Project, which raises awareness about violence against women – are the women in Empires of Dust kickback against the idea of women in Grimdark stories having no real agency of their own?

I was a victim of domestic abuse by a boyfriend. It’s very common, totally unacceptable, and nothing a woman should ever feel ashamed of having suffered. The Pixel Project is so important in spreading that message.

The women in Empires of Dust have agency, certainly. But they don’t necessarily do what some readers want. Thali says so clearly that people will say she’s a fool for the choices she makes – and a few people have said they don’t like her choices. Which is exactly the point. She’s not a kick-ass warrior, no, which is also the point. She’s taking absolute control of her life in a world that constrains female choices. I wanted to explore female autonomy in a world that largely defines women in terms of their relationship with men, because for most of human history women’s lives were defined largely in those terms, as daughters, wives, mothers. Thalia and Landra make their own lives within this framework. It seemed unsatisfactory to say that no woman could be autonomous within such a social framework, because it’s rather writing off most women’s lives throughout history. Thalia is the traditional love interest, yes – but she’s the only character who actually speaks straight to camera, as it were, without the mediation of the narrative voice, commenting on her choices and her feelings about the people around her.

A lot of women in grimdark do have quite limited autonomy. Serwe and Esme in Prince of Nothing are classic examples. But that’s very much the point – Eawa is a brutal, horrible misogynistic world in which women’s lives are cramped down to nothing, and that’s shown so clearly to be harmful to both women and men. None of the men in Prince of Nothing has a positive, equal relationship with an autonomous woman, and all of the men suffer hugely because of this. Prince of Nothing is about the agony of toxic masculinity. Its erasure of female autonomy is a part of that.

Also, writers like Michael R. Fletcher, Deborah A Wolf and Anna Stephens write very strong, autonomous female characters. For a lot of us writing grimdark now, male and female, the idea of not having a good balance of characters of diverse genders and sexualities all doing cool stuff is just … really stupid. I chose to create a male-dominated society in Empires of Dust, reflecting the vast majority of epic fantasy setting, and explore the implications of this on society, as did Bakker. Other things I write start from the assumption that gender and sexuality just aren’t a big thing.

Writing can be a stressful pursuit. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

Keep going. It’s a war of attrition, not a bout of single combat. A lot of people can start a novel.  Start many novels. The big thing is to keep going, six months in, when the excitement’s worn off, the story is still not particularly developed and you have a deep unspoken fear that every word of it is absolute shit. And then you take two weeks without even thinking about it, because work or family or holiday-of-a-lifetime and it seems so easy just not to go back. Go back. First in last out.

No matter how shit you think the final completed novel is in first draft – the feeling that you’ve done it, written a whole finished novel, that confidence that you can do it is something special. You can polish it up, get friends to comment, rewrite it, scrap it completely and start again. But you’ve write a whole novel from start to finish, and that’s a huge confidence thing.

And write whenever, wherever, don’t feel you need to wait for a long period of time to write in, have a special writing room, have a writers group for support, have done Clarion. Writers retreats and that sound wonderful, she says wistfully – but I wrote the whole of Empires of Dust on the train in and out of my day job, in snatched hours in cafes, in thirty minutes bursts sitting cross-legged on my bed. I have children, I have housework and all that as well as a job, I have to fit the writing in around all of that, and often the writing has to take fourth or fifth place to all the other stuff. I don’t even have a desk, I write on the dining table surrounded by piles of random household stuff. The saddest thing I’ve ever heard about writing is a work colleague saying they’d love to write a novel when they get the time one day. Make time. Writing is hugely beneficial for people’s mental health. You can still write something, slowly but surely, in snatched brief moments in the day.

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, Anna. Do you have anything coming up in the future that you’d like the world to know about?

I’m working on a series for Grimdark Magazine with Michael R Fletcher. Fletch is a brilliant author whom I hugely admire (see my introduction to his Collection of Obsessions anthology) and whom I certainly think of as a good friend. We’re writing the story in instalments, with a different POV each. We’re rarther driving Adrian Collins mad with our total lack of planning (Adrian: ‘guys, did you, you know, reread the previous episodes before writing the next one?’ Fletch and me: ‘No. Why would we want to do that?’) but it’s an amazingly exciting, dynamic writing process, the two of us are sparking off each other, inspiring each other to new depths. It should hit GdM in 2020. Assassins, mercenaries and occult mayhem in a grimdark city under siege. I wrote what I think must be the first female ejaculate joke in fantasy for it.

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