Reviews

THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: AGE OF ASSASSINS, by R.J. Barker (The Wounded Kingdom #1)

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

Age of Assassins is a definite example of what I’ve come to call “book vibes”, that impossible-to-define combination of factors that draws me to a book on the basis of little or no information about it: over the years I’ve learned to listen to this subliminal urging (or its opposite twin that warns me about a book I might not enjoy), because 99 times out of 100 it proves absolutely right.  When I glanced at Age of Assassins’ synopsis I felt that vibe, and after the first chapter I knew it had guided me well once again.

The story’s background is a fascinating one – even more so because it begs for more information about it, something that I hope will be offered in the next installments of this series: the Tired Lands, as the name suggests, are a place where farming and livestock raising are extremely difficult, because the soil has been depleted by the magic wielded by sorcerers during some brutal war.  In this world, the use of magic requires that power be drawn from nature itself, draining it of its life force, so that now most of the places where sorcerers fought for dominance are either barren wastes or covered in yellowish, withered grass: this makes for a brutal, unforgiving land, one where anyone suspected of using magic is killed, their blood spilled on the ground as a form of compensation for what was taken from it.    Breeding livestock is just as difficult as farming, since lack of pastures make the raising of cows quite costly, and people have turned to sheep, goats and mostly pigs – the latter far too often being fed the remains of caught criminals, or unlucky enemies.

Such a ruthless landscape makes for equally ruthless people, divided into three social groups – or rather castes: the Blessed, the aristocracy of the land, those who can wield their power unchecked and do so with cruel indifference; the Living, or the equivalent of a middle class, like shopkeepers and artisans; and the Thankful, who have really very little to be thankful for, eking out a meagre existence under the heel of their “betters” and the watchful eye of the priesthood.  There are however people who don’t belong to a specific caste, moving free and unseen among the populace – they are the Assassins, skilled and highly trained killers for hire, as reviled as they are sought after.

Young Girton Clubfoot is the 15-year old apprentice of master assassin Merela Karn and we meet them as they are infiltrating castle Maniyadoc on the summons of Queen Adran, sneaking in rather than passing through the main door because their kind is not welcome, even when their skills are required.  Soon Girton and Merela learn of their task: finding the assassin, and his employer, whose target is Ardor the queen’s son and soon-to-be king.  An assassin’s skills are such that only one of them can catch another, and Adran needs to resolve this quickly: the old king is dying (not from natural causes, which comes across as hardly surprising) and the queen has a very detailed political scheme hinging on her son’s survival and ascension to the throne.   Girton and his Master will have to blend in with the castle’s population to be effective, so that Merela poses as the court’s Death Jester, and Girton is sent with the other squires in training: day after day, the two assassins discover that there is much more than meets the eye in Maniyadoc, and that conspiracies can be more convoluted than they first thought.  Navigating the court’s intrigues and many dangers will prove quite difficult, and young Girton will need to balance his devotion to his Master with the first signs of adulthood and an unexpected discovery about himself that will turn his world upside down.

Many are the themes explored in Age of Assassins besides the immediate mystery at the core of the story, that acts as a thread binding it all together: there is the coming-of-age premise, of course, that is not limited to Girton alone, but involves all the castle’s squires and embraces other topics as peer pressure, cliques and the universal delight in bullying the weaker that seems to be a constant wherever young males are grouped together. Besides being the newcomer, Girton Clubfoot – as his name indicates – is a cripple, and if this has not factored in at all in his assassin training, nor made him self-conscious about it, he needs to tone down his abilities and look as non-threatening as possible, so that he has to suffer the insults and the rough handling of the other squires, who delight in finding a new target. And no one is as determined as  Ardor, a loutish, cowardly brute who is aware of Girton’s identity and purpose and wastes no opportunity to assert his power, as bullies are wont to do.   

Still, such bleakness is relieved by Girton’s nature, which offers a delightful counterpoint to the story’s dreary background, because for the first time in his sheltered life he’s able to give in to the need for friendship and to savor the first flutters of young love: much as Merela offered him shelter and a way to forge his path through life, she kept him somewhat apart from the rest of the world and Girton had little or no opportunities to be a teenager and to enjoy both the good and the bad that his age entails.  It’s here that we discover how his training has not hardened or soured him: yes, Girton is a very efficient assassin when need be, and we can often see how his Master’s lesson have borne fruit, but at the same time he is an innocent, and still able to look at the world with the kind of wonder that only the young can attain.   The best, most fascinating part of the story is indeed this, witnessing Girton opening for the first time to the real world, and enjoying the new awareness that comes from growing up. This does not mean that the core mystery is less interesting, because it leads to some daring feats and a final showdown that often left me in doubt of the outcome, but all of this plays as a background to the young man’s discoveries – both the good and the bad ones.

As a series opener, Age of Assassins works beautifully in introducing this world and it’s a revelation on many levels, not least because it’s a debut novel: rarely I have found such skill and mastery of the story in a first work, and R.J. Barker is indeed an author I will keep on my radar – especially because I look forward to learning more about Girton’s journey.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: FIRST WATCH (The Fifth Ward #1), by Dale Lucas

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

The theme of the more seasoned cop being teamed with a rookie he can’t initially stand is one of the main staples of detective literature, movies and tv series, but no one had so far tried to translate it into a fantasy background, and First Watch is probably the first example of this mashup, one that works well exactly thanks to its unusual setting.

Rem is a young man of noble origins who was feeling constrained by his pampered life, and therefore decided to seek adventure out in the big, unknown world: he ends up in Yenara, a colorful city rich with possibilities – and dangers.  Finding himself almost destitute, and incapable of landing any kind of work, Rem wakes up in the city’s jail after a drunken brawl: a series of bizarre circumstances leads him to his enrollment in the Wardwatch – the local version of a police force – and teamed up with veteran Torval, a grizzled dwarf Warden whose partner was recently murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Yenara is a bustling city filled with many kinds of creatures, as humans of various races, orcs, dwarves and elves coexist more or less peacefully in its streets where crime and honest business rub elbows, and despite his privileged education Rem is poorly equipped to hold his own, as testified by his imprisonment.  Even though he’s still guilty of a measure of naiveté, he’s also quick on his feet and this helps him gain some points with Torval, whose irritable demeanor hides a good, honest soul, and a person ready to grant his new partner some slack.

The two start their association by investigating the murder of Torval’s former mate, and in so doing they gather some unexpected clues concerning a series of disappearances and killings that might be related: it’s quite amusing to observe how bureaucracy and territorial politics are a constant, no matter the time period or the place.  As we are used to seeing in modern police procedurals, there are rules and limitations that hinder an investigation and sometimes force an officer of the law to go against them, ruffling a few feathers, in order to see justice done, and in this First Watch is no exception.

As the two unlikely partners move across the city in search of answers we learn much about Yenara, which appears like a crucible of races and customs that come together in a sort of free zone where everything is possible, everything is allowed (if you hold the right license…), making the inevitable parallel with modern New York – the city that more than any other one is the perfect place for a police story – quite clear.    The pace is fast and the story moves along between brawls and fights to the death, with a few sidelines of attempted murder on the two partners, rolling nicely toward the final showdown, one that however promises more adventures for the two unlikely – but by now well adjusted – partners.

If I enjoyed this story, and found myself often smiling at Rem’s and Torval’s antics, still I could not avoid finding a few details that spoiled the overall flavor of the novel.  My main point of contention is with the descriptions: the author is quite fond of adjectives, indeed, never employing just one where two – and sometimes three – can be crammed in to sketch any given person or object.  So you are not simply told that someone looks despondent, but rather that he sports a sad, mournful, desolate face; or a shady character might look hostile, aggressive and pugnacious, instead of simply truculent (the examples are mine, not directly drawn from the text, but can give a good idea of what I found).   Such… richness of detail is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s constantly repeated with every instance in which a description is required, it becomes distracting and ultimately slows the narrative flow down.

Something similar happens every time Rem sees someone, or witnesses an event, because in his mind he sort of makes up a back story for the action being shown, with no clues whatsoever about where it all came from: if he sees someone hurrying along with a worried face (again, the example is mine), he thinks it might be a clerk who has forgotten to run an important errand for his master, and is afraid of the consequences.  Since none of these flights of fancy are useful to the economy of the story, are not substantiated by the narrative, nor are they of any interest to the readers since they concern the story’s… extras, they are more distractions than background features, and the sheer repetition proves more bothersome than helpful.

And last, the final revelation – while interesting and bolstered by a quite epic battle between the Wardens and their quarry – is offered through lengthy explanations by the bad guy in chief, a method I always found mildly annoying, not unlike the main staple of many B-movies where the Evil Mastermind illustrates his Dastardly Plans to the captive hero before killing him – which never happens because the hero always  manages to even the odds.   Finding this narrative device here damped a little my enjoyment of the story and somehow ended it on a less than enthusiastic note.

Nevertheless, these are all personal considerations and should be taken as such: on the whole, First Watch is an entertaining read whose best feature is the relationship between two polar opposites, whose differences give origin to an engaging story that will put a smile on your face. And sometimes this is more than enough…

 

My Rating: