Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review of The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

I don’t know how politically correct the term is, but I’m going to use it anyway as it illustrates my point precisely. I grew up in a poor, rural, 99% white area. But we had television, which meant a virtual connection to all things American that were not poor, rural and white, including rap and hip-hop. And for the portion of youth who felt no kinship to the country music, 4x4 trucks, and good-ol'-boy local culture, the urban world of beats, rhymes, and gangstas called to them through the tv screen. Not only listening to the music but imitating the styles and behaviors of their tv idols as well, they came to form their own loose social group. Some of them my friends, they nevertheless were called 'wiggers' in the way high schoolers can be cruel. I can’t think of a better metaphor for Anna Smith Spark’s 2017 The Court of Broken Knives—as cruel as it is.

Poseur’ I believe the politically correct version of the word, more often than not The Court of Broken Knives poses as grimdark epic fantasy rather than actually being grimdark. What is grimdark, well, I know the term is subjective once you start peeling the layers back, but suffice to say it’s clear Spark's novel is doing everything it can to take the batons of Abercrombie and Martin, Bakker and Lawrence and turn the dial up to eleven on gloom and doom (typically accomplished by staccato repetition of ‘death’, ‘blood’, or ‘dying’), and thinking itself original for doing so. The blond haired, blue-eyed, uber-powerful hero/anti-hero of the story can’t do anything without some dark similes over his shoulder. The priestess character comes from a religious order in which children are regularly sacrificed to fate. And every fight or battle involves entrails spilling, inanity, mud, gouts of blood, hopelessness, etc. Fully third generation, it’s grimdark that wants you to know it is grimdark and not to forget it.

Like Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, The Court of Broken Knives begins desperately, on its knees begging the reader. Portraying a raging battlefield in a strongly nihilistic light, blood and carnage reign without hope, and the p.o.v. character’s pointless death brings the scene to a close. “I am grimdark, don't you see?!?! Please buy me!” The story which follows is about a band of mercenaries, including their Chosen One blue-eyed (anti-)hero, a priestess of a macabre religion, and a city official plotting to take down his emperor. The storylines interwoven, these characters’ individual interests play out across a bog standard Medieval fantasy world—kings, courts, assassination attempts, dragons, long journeys, wizards, yada yada, with perhaps a bit more desert than usual.

If the proceedings were tightly wed to a theme, underlying message, or conception of darkness beyond grimness for grimdark’s sake, then the never ending waves of doom would somehow have meaning. As it stands, however, it’s all too often Spark’s prose simply trying too hard. Pretentious, in many scenes handfuls of dramatic words are thrust at the reader, hoping that collectively they create an image or feeling. “The things in the air screamed, tearing at the light. He killed and killed and killed and killed. Death! Death! Death!” is a sample line, as is ““Mud and blood and shadows and that’s it. Kill them! Kill them all! Keep killing until we’re all dead.” It perhaps goes without saying that beating the reader over the head with death, killing, dying, et al doesn’t by default make a novel grimdark.

Which is a good segue into the novel's prose, or as some would have it, usage of language. It's atypical, grasping at poetry, and often misguided.* See the following death clip: “...bringing its front hooves down hard on what was left of Kam’s face. A funny loud hollow crunching sound, it made.” Funny-loud, loud-hollow, funny-hollow—those combinations I can get my head around, but “loud hollow” in combination with hoof, skull, and ground is so close to being identified that it can't be funny or strange. (And let's not talk about ' made'.) See also: “A spurt of blood. King Marith’s sword flashed like lightning. Rainbows. Stars. Pure perfect silver light.” Again, there seems a lack of awareness of what is actually being written. Rainbows imply a variety of bright, ethereal colors—even a nice metaphor for a sword arc were it to stand alone. But then the “pure perfect silver light” enters, chasing all the colors away. So which is it, the brain asks: bright, primary colors or brighter silver light? Maybe they somehow coexist? Or, do the rainbows just exist for a moment before giving way to silver? The reader shouldn't have to ask themselves these questions over and over.

Beyond prose (which can always be chalked up to preference), however, the consistency of the overall narrative is poor. Many of the scenes are delivered in a style one would describe as normal, typical, the pinball machine of dramatic adjectives is nowhere to be seen. This means a clash occurs once the pinball machine starts dinging and pinging. On top of this, The Court of Broken Knives is not written to scale or proportion given many scenes and their elements are not always tailored to perspective. A sentence might contain both micro and macroscopic elements without thinking about where the reader is or should be in the scene. For example, the mercenaries are confronted by a dragon at one point. Appropriately, it begins as a fleck in the sky, giving the reader perspective. But once it lands at a distance, suddenly a handful of details available only to somebody standing directly beside the dragon slash out at the reader—Gleaming Teeth!!, Fiery Heat!! Odor of offal!!, etc., appear, spoiling the reader’s perspective. Am I standing beside it, or experiencing this scene through the eyes of the mercenaries? This and many other scenes which zig and zag all over reader perspective indicate a writer more interested in forcing language than creating said scene balanced across the other variables of good writing (which, I would add, does have room for dynamic, poetic language). Another example regarding the lack of proportion is that the climax of one of the main character’s story arcs occurs around the halfway point of the novel, and yet somehow is dragged through the remaining pages to little purpose. The diehard epic fantasy fan will cryout: ‘That’s just set up for the next novel, you idiot!!’, to which I reply: “There are better ways to do it.” In another odd choice, three out of the four main viewpoint characters spend the majority of the novel traveling together, leading the reader to wonder: why were they split?

As a result The Court of Broken Knives is +/-500 pages but can often feel like 700 (and is in reality probably 250-300 if a proper editor were involved and the dross elided). It’s a novel that too often feels like Spark sat down, wrote whatever came to mind, perhaps proofread for grammar and spelling, and then packaged it as a manuscript to sell. It’s simply not a well-balanced or polished text. There are several occasions Spark delivers a nice between-the-lines line, only to follow it up with a line explaining what was between the lines. Not good technique, that. And that’s without getting into the chapter devoted to: “Here’s how the beautiful virgin priestess retains her strength, power, physical wholeness, female autonomy, et feminist al after having just had a one-night stand with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed hero because he is handsome and powerful.” Such writing smacks of catering rather than confidence… If the priestess wanted to fuck him, have her fucking him because she wants to. Don’t tell me character motivations. Put that between the lines. No need to go into some thinly veiled, 21 st century p.c. explanation that literally deviates from story. That’s not storytelling; it’s apologetics.

The one positive I walked away from the novel with is the non-standard perspective on male heroism in epic fantasy. A fine line existing between ‘champion of the people’ and ‘crude, blood thirsty animal’, Spark captures male aggression in her hero/anti-hero characters in atypical fashion, a fashion that almost makes one believe she intends to develop this theme into something meaningful in later books (or perhaps even intended the opening volume to be some kind of mad satire?). Regardless, it gives pause to look back upon the century’s worth of ‘knights in shining armor’ in a different light.

In the end, The Court of Broken Knives feels like grimdark for grimdark’s sake—and borderline parody given the style of language. Trying to be something it is innately not, it lacks a soul. The unending blood and guts don’t seem to serve any purpose beyond pushing the reader’s nose into yet more violence and gore, and gets old quick without an agenda or theme to glue it all together. A drudge without redeeming qualities (as dark as they might be), the reader has nothing to fall back upon once they’ve completed the journey except a banal story ricocheting with adjectives. I assume Spark would have had it otherwise, and perhaps readers like me need to wait for further volumes in the series to fully understand the intentions. The only thing I can say now is that the erratic, unfocused writing and the repetitive, beating-a-dead-horse nihilism only perpetuates the side of the argument saying grimdark is a bankrupt form of fiction. I’m not sure I will make it to the woefully titled Volume 2, The Tower of Living and Dying.

*The kitchen sink method used, here is a sample of text describing the appearance of a dragon:

Big as a cart horse. Deep fetid marsh rot snot shit filth green. Traced out in scar tissue like embroidered cloth. Wings black and white and silver, heavy and vicious as blades. The stink of it came choking. Fire and ash. Hot metal. Fear. Joy. Pain. There are dragons in the desert, said the old maps of old empire, and they had laughed and said no, no, not that close to great cities, if there ever were dragons there they are gone like the memory of a dream. Its teeth closed ripping on Gulius’s arm, huge, jagged; its eyes were like knives as it twisted away with the arm hanging bloody in its mouth. It spat blood and slime and roared out flame again, reared up beating its wings. Men fell back screaming, armour scorched and molten, melted into burnt melted flesh. The smell of roasting meat surrounded them. Better than steak.”

As “big as a cart horse”, that's it? Doesn't seem as impressive as the rest of the description would have it... And better than steak? Oh, sorry, grimdark, yeah, grimdark, I forgot for a moment...

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