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Empires of Dust #2

The Tower of Living and Dying

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Marith Altrersyr – father-killer, dragonlord, leader of the blood-soaked Amrath Army – is keeping his promises. He is determined to become King of all Irlast and take back the seat of his ancestors.

Only Thalia, once high priestess of the Lord of Living and Dying, the holiest woman in the Empire, might stop Marith and his army’s deadly march. But she is torn between two destinies – and if she was to return home, what would she fi nd there? A city on the brink of ruin: diseased, despairing, dying?

Crawling through a tunnel deep under the ruins of her city, Landra Relast vows vengeance. Her family has been burned, her home destroyed, and now Marith – once her betrothed – must die.

But as Landra cuts through the wasteland left in the wake of Marith’s army, she finds that she is not the only one who wishes him ill… ancient city of Sorlost

514 pages, Paperback

Published August 7, 2018

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About the author

Anna Smith Spark

21 books719 followers
'Game of Literary Thrones ... the next generation hit fantasy fiction' The Sunday Times

Anna Smith Spark lives 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 www.greatworks.org.uk. 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.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 142 reviews
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,113 reviews44.4k followers
May 6, 2020
Anna Smith Spark captures the dark heart of grimdark fiction with her poetical prose in this fantastically violent sequel to The Court of Broken Knives.

The Tower of Living and Dying begins exactly where its predecessor left off: with blood and death in vast quantities. Marith has really come into his own; he harnesses some dark force that makes him an indestructible killing machine. Men, armies, dragons alike fall before his sword and his fury. When he wields his blade, he is like a painter with a brush: the battle field is his canvass and he is ready to cover it in blood. He does not fight like a normal man but is driven by some maniacal savagery that pummels every foe he faces into the ground. Nothing can stop him, except, perhaps, himself.

His biggest weakness is his mind. He is plagued by several mental health problems and he uses drugs to switch them off and keep his daemons at bay. For a long time, he has denied what he is. He has denied what he can do. He is now a King and he is ready to conquer the world. As a character, I find him fascinating to read about. In a weird way, I think he secretly wants to be good. He absolutely hates himself and everything he does. There are glimpses of humanity in him, but they are overshadowed by this dark force that drives him. As the series goes on, more about his history is revealed and it becomes easier to understand why he is like he is. There are still a few questions to be answered though.

Like all second books in a trilogy, this one is a vessel to reach the third. There’s a lot of set up here. Marith has strong ambitions and there isn’t really anyone who can oppose him. He is unmatched and his only equal is the one he loves most in the world: his queen. She is shocked by his behaviour too, though her history is just as bloody and violent as his. The love he bares her is one of his only redeeming features, and it has grown across books. It has an obsessive, possessive and unhealthy quality to it. And, I must say, I don’t think it will end well. It’s a dangerous relationship. It will end with blood, I think.

So, this is another strong book in a very strong series. The plot and characters have developed tremendously, and Anna Smith Spark has retained her sharp edge when writing combat scenes. It’s a pleasure to read, and in my opinion one of the best trilogies released in recent years. The House of Sacrifice looks like it’s going to be quite explosive.

I’m very excited to see how this will end. For now though this is a solid 9/10


You can connect with me on social media via My Linktree.
Profile Image for Edward.
362 reviews916 followers
June 27, 2020
The Tower of Living and Dying is a wonderfully written grimdark novel that takes everything great about The Court of Broken Knives and ramps it up to 100. It is one of the most unique fantasy stories I have read.

“The god thing dived. Blazing golden. Pure pure perfect perfect life and hope. Marith killed it down with one blow.”

Anna Smith-Spark is a fantastic writer, there is no denying that. Her prose is inspiring - lyrical and beautifully cold. Being Book 2 of Empires of Dust, it is evident here Anna has become a master of this world. She understands the characters so well, and is able to switch and change her writing style with each individual.

There are multiple Point of Views here, each with interesting and plot driven storylines. Some we have met before, others are new - all are intriguing and very readable. I do not think Empires of Dust is a series where you will have your ‘favourite’ characters who you are behind every step of the way and want to survive the journey. Anna has crafted each character well and they all feel real or as real as one can in a dragon and disease ridden fantasy land.

“Sorlost. I did not wonder at the blank broken faces that came to me, laid themselves before my knife. I see it now in Tyrenae, and I begin to understand it. Blind children and madmen go begging in the streets here. The wealthy look at them and turn away and do not care.”

These characters are one of the many strong-points. They are so real that it is very easy to dislike them. They all have their motivations and do horrific things - but it is also very easy to feel empathy for them.

“A single ray of sunlight broke through the clouds. Shone on Marith’s silver crown.”

The world is bleak and beautiful, sometimes luxurious, always bloody. The action is visceral and equally bloody, There are betrayals that are heartbreaking, there are animals that are petrifying, politics that surprise you at each turn, and characters that find a way to be some of the most memorable in modern fantasy.

“Death! Death! Death!”

4.5/5 - Anna’s mastery of this series and characters highlighted The Tower of Living and Dying for me as one of my favourite reads of the year. Yes, the prose is equally stunning as Book 1, the environments equally dark and breathtaking, but at the heart of it is an author who has crafted a world that stands out, with a level of writing that is addictive.
Profile Image for The Tattooed Book Geek (Drew). .
296 reviews617 followers
April 11, 2019
As always this review can also be found on my blog The Tattooed Book Geek: https://thetattooedbookgeek.wordpress...

The Tower of Living and Dying starts near immediately after the ending of The Court of Broken Knives carrying on the various story arcs from the first book. Marith has a goal, total domination and dominion over all of Irlast, to reclaim the kingdom that his ancestor Amrath once ruled over, he is, after all, Amrath reborn. From the White Isles, across the Bitter Sea, to Ith, the Empty Peak mountains, through the Wastes, ever onwards towards Illyr and the fortress of Ethalden that was once Amrath’s seat of power. Wherever he goes Marith leaves a trail of death and destruction in his wake and blood follows him flowing like the tide of a river.

Tobias, Landra Relast and Raeta continue to tail Marith and his army across Illyr as they attempt to bring about his demise.

While, in Sorlost, the crown jewel of the Sekemleth Empire the city continues its downward spiral, circling the drain as the schemes that had been wrought by Orhan and Darith in The Court of Broken Knives have all come crashing down. The lies and deceptions have been uncovered and the truth has been revealed, pulled back like a puss-drenched rag to show the seeping infected wound beneath.

Sorlost is like an aged movie star whose beauty has long since faded, whose glory days lay far behind them, wilting, withering, rotting, a husk of their former self that no amount of paint and powder can hide the decay or bring back the former beauty.

In The Tower of Living and Dying we far more of the world this time around across various different locations as Marith relentlessly marches onwards, forever forwards, blood, kill, death, conquer, over and over. The scope is bigger, wider and larger in scale.

We get to witness both land and sea engagement in The Tower of Living and Dying and the battle scenes themselves show the chaotic confusion of engagement and the brutality of the ensuing carnage.

All of the characters to some extent continue to grow and show development. I do feel that Thalia (who is the only person who is written in the first-person) showed tremendous growth of character in the book, the most out of all the characters really coming into her own as a force to be reckoned with.

Marith’s love for Thalia is a force unto itself, so deep, so strong and he is a tormented and tortured soul. He’s a drunk and a drug (Hatha) addict and there is a self-destructive pattern to his behaviour, moments of clarity and lucidity vie with a mania to him. He’s not put together in the right way, something in him is broken, he is unhinged, he hates himself and the things that he has done and continues to do and then, he revels in the adoration of his army and in the bloodshed. He’s definitely not a ‘good‘ person but as a character, he sure is compelling to follow and read about.

For the Marith orientated sections, whether it was Marith himself, Thalia or the other characters who are planning for and plotting his downfall and his death I thought that the book was absolutely brilliant. For the sections in Sorlost, while enjoyable and interesting the pacing was a bit slow for my liking. I was intrigued by them and what was happening but at the same time, I kept wanting to get back to Marith and his quest for world domination. Between politics and fighting, well, for me, fighting will win every time!

Some second books in a trilogy tend to tread water, their sole purpose is as a mid-point to bridge the gap between the first book, the beginning and the third book, the end with nothing much happening. The players move into position, and the pieces are set for the conclusion. The Tower of Living and Dying isn’t one of them, a shit-ton happens, the ending point feels organic to the story and leaves you eager for The House of Sacrifice the concluding volume in the trilogy.

It took me a while to get into The Court of Broken Knives, I had no such issues with The Tower of Living and Dying. Smith Spark seems far more confident and it shows in her writing. I becoming enraptured from the start, I felt that the book itself was far more accomplished than its predecessor.

Smith Spark has a very unique way of writing and writes with a mixture of richly detailed sentences that gently caress you with her words and short and snappy sentences that are sharp, harsh and like a bark. She often uses only a single word or a variety of words that all hold a similar meaning to convey emotion with both third-person perspective and first-person perspective thrown into the mix too.

It’s definitely a love it or hate it style and I think that you have got to try it to find out which side of the fence you fall on. Whether you like it or not she deserves praise for trying something different and while I can’t fault those who have an issue with her writing, personally, I don’t. On the surface, it can be very jarring, akin to someone striking random strings on a violin and hoping for music to be produced. In less capable hands it could be a discordant tangle of the various styles thrown together. For Smith Spark, her hands are more than capable and she does, in-fact produce music with her writing. There is often a lyrical, lilting feel to her words, a poetry to the proceedings and she creates a vivid picture brought to life in her own stylistic fashion. There is a beauty to her writing and it can be atmospheric, emotive, evocative and gorgeously descriptive, flowing easily like blood from a freshly opened cut as she creates a canvas of blood, brutality and violence. If you can get over the hurdle of her writing then you are richly rewarded with a book that is brutally beautiful and Grimdark brilliance.

The Tower of Living and Dying is a blood-soaked epic. When all is said and done in The Empires of Dust, Irlast will need a transfusion from all of the blood that has been spilt in the name of Marith Altrersyr and I fucking loved it.
Profile Image for Peter McLean.
Author 38 books866 followers
July 14, 2018
The grand, sweeping black metal opera that is The Empires of Dust strikes up the second act.

Marith the Murder Christ and Thalia, Queen of all Irlast, embrace their dark destinies, while in dreaming Sorlost the consequences of Orhan's past deeds come back to bury him.

It's a second act that feels less visceral than the first, perhaps, and yet more mythic, prose like honey and wine and razorblades. This is a book designed to be read aloud, an epic tale to be told over meat and mead by the long fire. This is Homer sung by Tanith Lee, and that's the highest praise I have to give.

It. Is. Magnificent.

Why we march and why we die,
And what life means... it’s all a lie.
Death! Death! Death!
Profile Image for Wol.
113 reviews42 followers
August 7, 2018
Full review below. Review plus custom cocktail available at The Tome & Tankard Inn.

Well, there’s no point mincing words about it. The Tower of Living and Dying is my favorite book of the year so far. It is one of the most masterful, rich, compelling and pitch-perfect second books that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The Court of Broken Knives was one of the most criminally underrated books of 2017, with its incredibly bold and evocative prose, compelling characters and deliciously dark worldbuilding. Second entries are notoriously tricky affairs – usually they’re setting up their chess pieces for the third entry, and they often suffer for it. Yet for me, The Tower of Living and Dying surpasses its predecessor in every possible respect. I didn’t see that coming.

I mentioned in my review of book one that on the surface it felt like a series of somewhat random events taking place with us along for the ride, which all came together cleverly towards the end of the novel. Here, there is a strong feeling of momentum, and clear goals for our characters. It begins by dealing with the fallout from the end of the previous entry – Marith is now king, and he is drawing followers to him who are caught up in religious fervor. He is Amrath returned, demon-born, king of death. Thalia is his queen, and her naive love has developed into something far more interesting over time. She both loves and resents Marith, sees herself reflected in him somewhat, and recognizes what he’s capable of. Her influence over him waxes and wanes, and she begins to understand just how dangerous he truly is. Not content with merely ruling the White Isles, he sets out on a murderous campaign to conquer all of Irlast with Thalia at his side. She is conflicted, to say the least.

Meanwhile in Sorlost, Orhan is scrambling to cover his ass. He’s barely managed to save face after his failed coup, and rumors are beginning to reach the city of Marith and Thalia’s survival. Cracks are beginning to show in his relationship with Darath, and his sham marriage with Bil is increasingly strained. On top of all this, the people are starting to turn on him. There are several other PoV characters, and I think the most interesting are those of Landra and Tobias. They are both reduced to little more than peasants, and for Landra in particular this is quite an adjustment. Her perspective is heartbreaking and I began to feel a real sense of pity for her. We’re also treated to a new PoV that I very much enjoyed, and a mysterious character who is more than she appears to be.

The worldbuilding is spectacular – given a little breathing room, Spark shows us what she’s really capable of. We see many new locations, cultures and landscapes. The fantasy elements of the novel are ever present this time – we have seen dragons, but now we see underutilized fantasy creatures that add atmosphere and intrigue. Selkies, gods, demons, all manner of interesting and terrifying creatures inhabit the world and are making themselves known. The prose is every bit as visceral and emotional as in the previous entry, and we’re given a good long look at the response of the ordinary people to the events taking place around them. In some ways the book is a character study – it explores the idea of narcissism, but what if the narcissist truly is everything he believes himself to be? What if someone could stop a destructive god, but chose not to? What if someone set out on a quest of vengeance and then began to question themselves? What if an all-powerful being of light and hope could be struck down with a single blow? What if there really was no hope? It’s heavy stuff, but it’s paced beautifully and ramps up to an exciting and devastating conclusion. Book 3 is at the very top of my wish list.
Profile Image for Maja Ingrid.
449 reviews130 followers
August 27, 2019
2019 reread
Sorry not sorry this is gonna be long-ish and rambly because no reasons at all.

First time I read this book I had some struggles, mainly because I didn’t remember enough of the first book. At this reread There are some bumps in the road as well, and I think it comes down to the narration of the story. Both this book and the previous uses a technique where some chapters are regular third POV (limited) and first POV, and also uses a POV we don’t really know who’s perspective it is from, where sometimes other character’s name aren’t mentioned either, and “flashbacks” of sorts. It also uses both past and present tense. My biggest gripe is that with some of these techniques, it feels like stuff are too quickly brushed over where I would have liked to be more thoroughly explored, but only to be discussed later. I’m also not sure if I liked how Marith’s/Thalia’s and Tobias’/Landra’s chapters and Orhans chapters were divided into different parts? It made it feel very divided whereas in the first book they were more intermingled with each other. But maybe it was a purpose with it, seeing that they were in different parts of the world.

The writing is as beautiful as ever. Though I think I spotted some “errors” that weren’t completely intentional, I think. But nothing that bothered the reading. But damn, this woman knows how to write on my soul. And like, sometimes the way she constructs sentences makes my head spin and I no longer know where in the sentence I’m supposed to be. Lack of punctuation and commas does that to my brain.

It picks up right after Broken Knives ended. I didn’t noticed last time I read it, and didn’t notice when rereading Broken Knives, but I noticed when I picked this one up again: A passage in the end of Broken Knives and the first chapter in this book is the same scene. I don’t, kind of find it neat. I like it when books or movies/tv-shows sort of start/end with the same scene because it makes it feel so tied up. We follow Marith on his conqueror quest; Tobias, Landra and Raeta on their quest to murder Marith’s demon ass; and Orhan facing the consequences of what happened in Sorlost. People die and blood is flowing. It’s beautiful and glorious.

I always been “Guuuurl why you with him tho?????” at Thalia for staying with Marith. I always been “You should kill him” because as both she and Tobias says it would have been a kindness to everyone, including most of all himself. But I also don’t want her to ever leave him because she might be the only one that’s able to keep him sort of together-ish???? Like he said on page 471: . He’s already broken and tormented and unhinged. If she leaves/dies the world will burn for an eternity and he might actually succeed killing himself in a hatha and firewine binge. And I mean, it’s evident in the book her light is doing some good to him.

I’m really glad I reread these books, because I remembered less than I thought. And because of that it almost felt like rediscovering them in a way, you know what I mean? It was like I sort of had an idea what was going to happen, because I did remember some broader stuff, but also had no idea what was going to happen.

And though it's not quite up there with Broken Knives I'm still gonna re-rate it from 4 to 5 stars because I FECKING CAN

House of Sacrifice finally shipped today and if mail is quick I will have it before the weekend YAAAAAAAY


2018 read
While I didn't find this as good as the first book, it was still highly enjoyable! (I might go back to book 1 and bump up one star bc when I read it last year I could never decide whether to rate it 4 or 5 stars).

I adore Anna Smith Park's writing style. It's very unique and special, in a way that you either hate it or love it. I belong to the camp that love it.

This is also prime grimdark. It's dark, brutal, gory and despicable characters. Especially Marith. To quote Tobias, he's a vile poisonous little shit. But I have rooted for him more than I should???? I mean, Thalia should have killed him in that first chapter. It would have been a kindness to EVERYONE, maybe most to himself. Tobias' and Landra's chapters were really interesting to read too, with their plotting to kill the king.

Am super excited for the third book, House of Sacrifice!
Profile Image for Mili.
389 reviews33 followers
November 1, 2019
Took me a while to finish this sequel. I had a hard time focussing and you kinda need it with the way this series is written. I fking love the style it just costs me more concentration which I have a bit trouble with this year. I still enjoyed it immensely! I love how raw and grim the atmosphere is. People in shock and so much death and death and killing and blood everywhere. I finished the 150pgs I had left today and having a fresh, rested mind really took me properly back into this world with dragons, magic and survival. The minds of the characters and their struggle and fear is palpable and real in this world where killing for power and survival can come at every turn. And sickness. The magic was not on the surface but something invisible influencing minds. And at the end of the book it showed and it was fascinating. This series so far is satisfying. And one that I need to reread to get more snippets of the plot that I definitely am missing here and there. There is so much to get from the story.

'Death. Murder. Carnage. Killing. Pleasure. Pain. Death. Love.Everything falling dying. Just ashes. Just dark. Dust. Bones. Blood. Bodies. Ruin.

'Might not get to really kill people again likes this for, oh, weeks. Kind of like when you lick the last taste of something off your plate, it's that tasty. Don't want to lose a drop.'
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,787 reviews1,626 followers
August 17, 2018
'The Tower of Living and Dying' is the sequel to 'The Court of Broken Knives', and the second book in the fantastic 'Empires of Dust' series from grimdark and epic fantasy loving Anna Smith-Spark. Let's get this out of the way first - it is imperative that you read 'The Court of Broken Knives' before embarking on this one, as this book is heavily based on the happenings of the first novel.

Smith-Sparks prose is absolutely exquisite, it flows beautifully, and it doesn't surprise me at all that the author has written poetry in the past. There is a lyrical quality to it, and despite all of the books I get to read, I have not encountered work quite like this before. The action ramps up considerably from the first book, with a ratcheting up of the tension as the story progresses. Smith-Spark uses the title 'Queen of Grimdark' on Twitter which in my mind she has truly earned. These are some of the most underrated and undiscovered books in the fantasy genre, more people need to read this brilliant series, but one word of caution - if you don't like brutal, bloody and dark violent scenes then this is definitely not for you. I literally cannot wait for her to publish more of her work!

Many thanks to HarperVoyager for an ARC. I was not required to post a review, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
Profile Image for Hiu Gregg.
113 reviews156 followers
July 31, 2018
When I read The Court of Broken Knives earlier this year, I was blown away by the strength of Anna Smith Spark’s voice. She manages to convey emotion in a way that very few authors can. Her writing style is different from the usual fantasy fare. It’s raw. Visceral. Sometimes angry, sometimes melancholic. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a story so much as someone is telling you a story.

The Tower of Living and Dying is a continuation of the first book in many ways. It has that same engrossing and infectious writing style, much of the same point-of-view cast, and the story picks up where the last book left off. And yet it isn’t just “more of the same”.

While some authors have to slow the action down to get to the character work, Spark does the opposite. There’s more character exploration (and on a deeper level)… but there are crazy, world-changing events in the background. This makes for a very interesting dynamic. The characters’ lives are changing. The world is falling to pieces around them. But this change isn’t the real focus of this story. Instead, the focus is on how the characters react to that change.

They begin to question themselves. To think more critically. They aren’t so sure of their place in this new world. They aren’t sure what their world will become. Their vulnerabilities are laid bare, and this makes for some very compelling character work.

Like in the last book, Marith is the catalyst for a lot of what happens in The Tower of Living and Dying. But while he has a lot more agency this time around, it can sometimes feel like he is walking on a path that has been laid for him. I didn’t find him quite as captivating as I have in the past, and I found his chapters to feel a little linear, but even so, he is a fascinating character. The concept of a narcissist which the world really does seem to revolve around is intriguing, and the exploration of the disconnect between Marith-in-public and Marith-in-private makes for some very thought-provoking reading.

But while the world may seem to revolve around Marith, it was the other characters who really caught my eye. Tobias, Orhan, and especially Thalia all get their chance to shine, and their development over the course of the novel is a pleasure to read. Thalia’s progression from the obedient and submissive priestess of the first book to the person she is now shows signs of becoming one of my favourite character arcs in fantasy.

There are some new, though familiar, point-of-view characters who add their own flavour to the story, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, you’ll need to discover those for yourself.

We see a lot more of the world than we did in The Court of Broken Knives. We still spend some time in Sorlost — that wonderful place which is one part “City of Gold” and one part “pus-filled pimple on the arse of the continent” — but we also visit some of the more interesting-looking places on the very pretty map of Irlast.

It’s like a grimdark travel diary. Travel the world! Visit interesting places! Meet interesting people!

Then dispose of them.

Really though, this book seems to have everything. There’s dragons, there’s monsters, there’s gods, and there’s killing. Lots of killing. Death! Death! Death!

To conclude: This is an excellent novel by an excellent author in an excellent series. It is a fantastic sequel in all senses of the word. If you were a fan of The Court of Broken Knives, then you owe it to yourself to read this. This is a trilogy which every grimdark reader should have on their bookshelf.
Author 1 book358 followers
August 31, 2018
The Queen of Grimdark, holy be Her name, is back. And Death follows close behind.

Μarith, although a King now, is still in exile in Toreth Harbour in the aftermath of the battle of Malth Salene, planning his next move to reclaim his birthright, his throne. Consumed all the more by his past demons, and becoming all that was promised by his ancestry, the only thing that seems to keep some of Marith’s humanity is Thalia. His Queen, who is still by his side, trying to bring out the little goodness that is still left in him. In Sorlost, Orhan has to face the consequences of his coup. Taking control was the easy part. Keeping it proves to be way harder.

The White Isles men begin edging forwards. Slowly, crawling, beetle slow. The Ithish too begin moving. Not even clear if it’s in answer to an order: men lined up for battle must meet, and so they begin inexorably to move. All they have to do to live is refuse to go forward. Put down their spears. Nothing in the world and all the gods and demons and powers anyone could do to make them move and take up their arms and kill. But they move towards each other, slowly and inevitably, beyond any possibility of turning back. The secret hidden pleasure of every human heart, that it is waiting to die and to kill.

Sharper, weirder, and bloodier, The Tower of Living and Dying is what a sequel should be.

As with the first book, the story is told by several different POVs, some of them new. The characters are well-developed, and given depth. Their motives become clearer in this one though their actions are still unpredictable at places. The dynamics of Marith and Thalia’s relationship as well as Orhan and Darath’s are a driving force for the plot. The story itself is intriguing to say the least. Although it has some slow moments, the pace is relatively fast, with quite a few shocking plot-twists at the right places. The magic system that was already established in the first book is further expanded here, and the same goes for the world-building.

What makes this book stand out though, as with its predecessor, is Spark's writing style. It's unique, brilliant, and quite unsettling at places. Her prose comes close enough to a rhythmic structure, giving the book the feel of a poem. This is what made me love The Court of Broken Knives in the first place, and I'm still enthralled by it here.

All in all, The Tower of Living and Dying is an excellent new installment in the Empires of Dust series, and if you liked the first book, then you'll come to love this one.
Profile Image for Anton.
273 reviews85 followers
July 22, 2019
Glorious! Bloody glorious! Full review asap. 5 stars all the way!


I am definitely looking forward to instalment #2. Strongly encourage others to explore The Court of Broken Knives. The first book has firmly lodged in my memory.
Profile Image for Michael.
268 reviews75 followers
August 19, 2019
4.5-stars that would have been 5 had I enjoyed it as much as book 1.

The 'Queen of Grimdark' strikes again! If you are a fan of this genre then you have to read these books! The author's style of writing is unique, in my experience. Her unusual literary skill adds something extra that gives it more feeling than other authors in this genre. I am not a visual reader but even I could feel the hopelessness of the worlds' inhabitants at times.

I read the hardback version and it included the map below.

It is very dark and nasty and there is a twisted love story going on between its main characters that is a tragedy. Thalia loves and despises Marith equally and Marith loves and wants to kill Thalia. I have thought about how to describe Marith but have come up short. He is a little like Jorg from Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns. He also has shades of Michael Moorcock's Elric about him, (or perhaps Drizzt Do Urden) without the honour? However, you picture him Marith is the king of ruin.

So, if you're ready for some more DEATH! DEATH! DEATH! Then READ! READ! READ! This book.

I have ordered book 3 and will read it when I get the opportunity.

Thanks for reading.
Profile Image for Chris Berko.
466 reviews115 followers
September 22, 2019
You get more of everything you loved about book one in book two of the Empires of Dust series The Tower of the Living and the Dying. More treachery, more blood, more fighting and more death. I started this as soon as I finished book one which I'm glad I did because when I first picked up book one it took me a while to get used to the writing style. Not so with this story, everything clicked right off the bat and I was once again immersed in a truly unique tale. I also admire the way she can portray such horrific happenings in so many beautiful words. I've read authors that write shocking things just for the sake of being shocking, that is not the case here. The horrors and the vividness actually put me IN the story and it seemed like I was a part of what was going on and not an overhead, above-it-all observer. I've read a lot of books and and it all felt really really new to me, like very fresh and original. The writing is mature, the story remains bold and uncompromising and I cannot wait to see where she takes things in book three. 4.5 very impressed stars.
Profile Image for Leona.
72 reviews24 followers
August 21, 2018
The Court of Broken Knives was a highly unusual and fantastic book for the fantasy genre, and The Tower of Living and Dying takes all the great things, artistic and evocative prose, stunning battle scenes, conflicts and melancholy, lyrical beauty and brings it to a whole another level with everything dialled up to 11.

The writing style is unique and highly original, and this is probably what made The Court of Broken Knives a marmite book for some fantasy readers. Those who have read literary fiction and classic literature will most certainly appreciate the poetic, evocative and unique style here.

I think the Court of Broken Knives was the most underrated fantasy debut of 2017,but I have faith that this series is going to be among the classics of modern fantasy in good time. The literary quality and the lyrical nature of Anna Smith Spark’s prose is a serious competition to Rothfuss and the worldbuilding is simply amazing. Fantasy elements are aplenty, be it magic, dragons, divine spectral beings, mythological creatures, demons and what have you.

Character conflict is another notable element of awesomeness here. The main POV characters from The Court of Broken Knives are all present, but fraught with new and deeper conflicts -perhaps with the exception of Marith, who was already messed up beyond any redemption from the very beginning. Landra Relast and her tragic storyline evokes empathy for her, if you couldn’t find anyone to root for in the first book, Landra and Tobias might be your guys. They were certainly mine!

Orhan Emmereth is my other favorite character, his parts were some of the most intriguing in the whole book. His perspective shows the spiderweb style politics, court intrigue and the tension of family and relationship issues. I am not a big fan of sappy romance, but give me troubled relationships any day! Orhan and Darath are my fav gay couple and I think slash fanfic writers should write fanfics of them. It’s already slash and they are cute, what’s there not to love?

I am not a big fan of song lyrics and poetry in books -with the exception of great Tolkien- but I found the few poems scattered in The Tower of Living and Dying absolutely mesmerizing.

Sorlost in all its glory and decay, gorgeous nature scenery of the White Islands, harsh beauty of Illyr, all take you away from this world and transport you to another one. Action, thrill and suspense scenes combined with the reflections of massive conflicts made this book an addictive page turner for me, not just the fact that Raeta is my alter ego and evil twin.

Both hand to hand combat and battle parts are glorious and cinematic, you can almost see the glint of swords, hear the clangour of heavy cavalry riding into a charge and smell the blood and guts in the air. Downright some of the best battle scenes I have ever read in fantasy along with Malazan and Bakker’s Second Apocalypse books. If you are into fighting and martial arts, this series might be just your thing.

Non-predictable and non-formulaic nature of the book combined with tornado-like plot twists will leave your head spinning -in a good way.

I almost forgot to mention the most important aspect: This book is even more GDAF (grimdark as fuck) than The Court of Broken Knives, which was pretty damn GDAF to begin with. There is all kinds of horror shows and macabre scenes, not to mention the incredible darkness of some of the characters. Grimdarkiness level is, dare I say, about on par with Bakker. I think even Bakker might agree with me here if I must wager a bet.

Another bonus point goes to Anna for the flies. A lot of gritty stories out there are missing the flies, you see. Quite a few authors describe the stench and disgusting visuals, but totally forget the flies, so you can tell the author is sitting in a sterile suburb writing it and never really seen a latrine pit. Kudos for making sure there are clouds of flies swarming on and above nasty, stinky, dead things at all times and scatter buzzing like hell when you go near it. This is what I call proper hyper-realistic grimdark!

There is a whole lot of things I could write, but I keep my reviews spoiler free so this is about all I can say without giving anything away.

TL; DR: Go buy this and the prequel if you have refined tastes and appreciate stunning, original and poetic prose, and if you are a fan of things like maxed out grimdark, glorius battles and deeply conflicted grey and super dark characters. Thank me later.

This review is also posted on my blog
Profile Image for Ross Thompson.
285 reviews7 followers
August 1, 2019
*** I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This is that review ***

The follow-up to the epic Court of Broken Knives seamlessly continues the story.

This time the focus of the action stays in the same place for large chunks of the book (7 parts I think), rather than chapters jumping around from one to another. This allowed a slightly greater focus on the plot than in the first book, but the difficulty with that is keeping the momentum on both parallel stories. This wasn't an issue here, as the narrative flows so smoothly that even when the PoV is a character you care less about, the writing is still a joy to read.

Most of the action follows "King" Marith's plight to rule over all of Irlast's kingdoms, using all the evil creatures and tricks he has to hand, regardless of the cost in human lives. Here the story is told by splitting between Tobias, Landra, Marith and Thalia's points of view, so you get a real feel for what is going on and the impacts of events.

The rest of the book stays in Sorlost, the capital of the Empire, still reeling from the assassination attempt and with political intrigue aplenty. These were my less favourite parts of the book but were still enjoyable, compelling and vital. Again, the PoV is split between characters in these sections, giving more of a feel of the general populace than was present in the first book.

Again Smith Spark's lyrical narrative takes centre stage here, but at no point does it detract from the story and somehow acts to accentuate the grittiness of the action unfolding and adds so much emotion.

For me, this book took the grimdark quotient up several notches from the first instalment, as chapter after chapter sees bad things done by utter shit-bags, and they get away with it.

Characters develop aplenty here, Thalia starts to wake up to the reality of what she has married into and while torn about doing the right thing, seems resigned to her fate. Marith becomes the anti-Rand al'Thor as he tries to do everything himself and explores his powers, but he has a great time doing it. Finally we see great powerful war leaders celebrating the successful campaign by getting absolutely shit-faced and high and spewing everywhere (rather than sulky debriefs and mourning the loss of life). Tobias, so clever, cunning and powerful in the first book, here takes a back seat and almost becomes comic relief - his attempts to end Marith's tyrannical reign just go so badly. And everything is starting to go wrong for Orhan, the Lord of Sorlost, who looked to have manoeuvred himself into real power in the city.

A real page-turner and frankly an awesome story told exceptionally well.
Profile Image for Jon Adams.
294 reviews57 followers
September 12, 2018
I think I'll have to come back to this review after some digestion.
Profile Image for Adrian Collins.
Author 35 books112 followers
August 19, 2018
Originally posted on Grimdark Magazine.

he Tower of Living and Dying both builds upon and eclipses the world and story Smith-Spark started with The Court of Broken Knives. It’s bigger, wider, more sprawling than its predecessor, and yet also more intimate and deep.

In The Tower of Living and Dying Marith marches his armies to find the body of his ancestor, Amranth, painting the continent red with the blood of men, women, beasts, and gods.

The story kicks off with Thalia and Marith in the immediate aftermath of the destruction at the end of The Court of Broken Knives, each struggling with their own part in the slaughter of Marith’s father and the people in their own way.

Marith is coming to terms with being king, and what it means to have killed his father to do so, and the oddity of the devotion shown to him by people who but a few days passed lined up to fight with, or cowered behind the walls owned by, his father. On top of this, he is both terrified of, and resigned to, losing Thalia—knowing that he is an aberration and that she sees that and that she wants to leave, now that she sees the world and can move on without him.

In my review of The Court of Broken Knives, I was all about Marith. And while I still love / hate reading him (in the best possible way), in this book, it’s Thalia, Thalia, Thalia.

Thalia is at war within. She knows Marith must die to prevent a river of bloodshed the like of the world has never known, but she cannot strike him down. His beauty, his tragedy, and to be loved by a king, hold her back each time. She also knows there is more to this world than kings and armies and men killing each other, and I feel she wanted to know what that is, but also knew she could not do that while Marith—unpredictable, violent, addicted, and addictive Marith—lives. By the end of the book, Thalia’s growth throughout the story has become one of my favourite character developments of 2018.

Landra is fleeing Marith and his new army, relying on locals she never knew for haven, and watching them get on with their lives even though hers—which she once thought important to them—has been burned around her. I love the way Smith-Spark depicts her almost wonder at how her family’s demise doesn’t affect them any more than just people looking after an injured woman they know they need to get rid of for their own safety. Made me think of the modern day death of a celebrity—you’re sad for a moment, remember a few good and bad things, say to a friend, “that’s so sad,” then just get on with life and the things that have an impact on your survival and happiness.

Orhan wallows in his new world as Nithique (advisor) to the Emperor of Sorlost. He’s struggling to achieve the gains he’d hoped for to bring the rotting corpse of Sorlost back to even a shimmer of its former glory; Bil, his wife, is ready to give him his heir and he struggles with impending fatherhood, his sexuality versus the expectations of his station, and Darath his lover; and finally, on what Orhan has turned Darath into, and what he’s made him do. All these things sit heavy on Orhan, and Smith-Spark does a magnificent job of depicting what it’s like to feel like you have a million things to do that your career rest on, but can only spin your wheels and fall deeper into a pit of despair as your goalposts move further, and further away.

Again, as in The Court of Broken Knives, Smith-Spark has this magnificent ability to paint moments of beauty in your imagination, shining bright and melancholy amongst the grit and hardship of its backdrop. So many moments when I just stopped and sighed, and enjoyed the mental picture. Smith-Spark has delivered another amazingly visual and experiential book that just hits you in the gut, the heart, and the mind from cover to cover. I’ve experienced few authors who managed to do it as well as she does.

End-to-end, I found the story engaging and nigh-on un-put-downable. The growth of the characters–Marith and Thalia, in particular–was highly engaging and thoroughly enjoyable. The overarching story, including that of Orhan and the surrounding cast in Sorlost, will keep readers on the edge of their seat. The human element, especially, is what makes this a magnificent follow up to The Court of Broken Knives and places Smith-Spark as one of the most exciting authors in not only grimdark, but in fantasy.

Smith Spark has delivered another immersive Grimdark fantasy experience that eclipses almost everything else I’ve read this year.
Profile Image for FanFiAddict.
548 reviews136 followers
July 27, 2018
First off, big shoutout to Hachette Audio, the author, Colin Mace, and Meriel Rosenkranz for an ALC (advanced listening copy) of The Tower of Living and Dying in exchange for an honest review. Receiving this ALC in no way influences my thoughts or opinions on the novel.

I can’t start off this review without stating a couple of truths:
1) The Court of Broken Knives (Empires of Dust #1) was one of THE most underrated books of 2017, IMHO. Had Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames not come out last year, it would’ve been my #1 read of 2017.
2) Colin Mace is quickly becoming one of the best narrators OF ALL TIME. Anything tied to his name, I’ll listen to. Simple as that. He does grimdark like no other. Highly suggest you check out this series, on top of Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark series and James Bennett’s Ben Garston novels if you like audiobooks.

King Marith. Demon. Murderer. Death itself.
Queen Thalia. Former Priestess. Wife. Betrayer.

Both come to embrace the power bestowed upon them and march to reclaim the throne owed. Marith continues to gather followers in order to bulk up his ranks, killing any who do not worship at his feet. Thalia attempts to bring Marith to the light, believing there is still some good in him, but can slowly see the darkness quenching the light.

The city of Sorlost, once legendary, beautiful, and unconquered, a city where its inhabitants pissed gold and jewels, attempts to recover. Orhan leads the effort, but his past comes back to haunt him as his misdeeds have begun to spread like wildfire.

Spark has a unique voice, one that I believe is better listened to than read. The pace at which her writing comes off of the pages can be a turn off to some, but adds to the overall grittiness of the story she is portraying. The descriptive info dumps during battles, where certain words are often repeated two or more times, hammer home the intensity of war, the gruesomeness of death, and the scene uncovered by the flames of dragon’s breath.

While not as hard hitting as its predecessor, TToLaD continues to show off Spark’s poetic and gorgeous prose, which is like a fine wine mixed with barbed wire and rusty saws. It is a story in which I will continue to look back upon, even after its finale, because of the richness of spoken word is eludes. I always think that I have heard and seen it all, the ways in which a man can be killed and the act described, but then Spark throws me a curveball.

I, for one, cannot wait until the next installment. 2018 is continuing the trend that started in 2017 with fantastic fantasy debuts by giving us exactly what we asked for in their sequels, and Orbit is leading the charge with gusto.
Profile Image for Yvonne (The Coycaterpillar Reads).
686 reviews213 followers
February 26, 2023
The Tower of Living and Dying is absolutely EVERYTHING you could want in a fantasy novel. Epic scope and an imagination that never quits for anything.

When I read The Court of Broken Knives a couple of weeks ago, I was blown away by the sheer force of Smith Spark’s writing. The characterisation, the passion, and the endless possibilities of the worldbuilding. It’s been a breath of fresh air from the usual fantasy novels I’ve been known to read. I love Grimdark in all its devious nuances and deplorable characters but this feels different somehow, addictive and binge worthy.

The Tower of Living and Dying continues straight on from The Court of Broken Knives. It felt like seeing an old friend again. The pages opened up like a door into a far away world. I took the journey willingly even although I knew I was in for a fair bit of danger I knew the story would be worth the bloodshed I’d have to endure. It’s a known fact that the second book in a series usually ends up feeling like filler, this really isn’t the case, its fresh, its new and nothing felt forced.

In The Court of Broken Knives we were introduced to a whole cast of characters, some I liked and some I despised. Spark delves further – more motivations, action, and consequence, what makes them tick, what is their Achilles heel? I enjoyed getting to know Thalia more (a personal favourite), I loved how she has now come full circle and has become a bad ass in her own right. She knows her worth and doesn’t bow down to anything, she has developed from being a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly – the Queen of the White Isles with Marith at her side is a force to be reckoned with.

Marith is now King of the White Isles, there’s been a deep personal cost to him ascending his birth right. His Brother and mother are now dead and at his own hands. I don’t care how desensitised you are to war and bloodshed, that’s a cut that is going to scar deep. His reputation precedes him, he’s a drug (Hatha) addict and a bit of a drunk, he’s known for his murderous rampages but is determined to bring back the infamy of his house and he will do it by any means necessary. His public and private life are very different and it made me ponder where exactly he is more comfortable, is it on the battlefield or behind closed doors with Thalia by his side? The thing that I love about epic fantasy is the worldbuilding. I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing this world for what it is. Sorlost under the current empire is on its last legs. Things cannot continue as they are. We see more of the land around the White Isles and I was totally there for it. I can’t wait to get stuck into the third and final chapter in this tale of grimdark.
Profile Image for Susanne Krajan.
791 reviews6 followers
July 26, 2020
Nachdem Teil 1 wirklich gute Dark Fantasy war, musste ich natürlich dran bleiben. Auch die Fortsetzung versprach Blut, Rache und Mord, aber konnte sie auch halten was sie versprach!?

Mir geht es wie nach dem Ende vom Auftakt: Ich bin mir unsicher was ich davon halten soll. Es war düster, blutig, mit WTF Momenten und einer unglaublichen Portion Wahnsinn, die mich mich begeistern und mitreißen konnte. Aber auf der anderen Seite was es langatmig und zäh.

Der Schreibstil der Autorin bleibt wirklich gut. Vor allem wenn es so richtig zur Sache geht, beweist sie absolutes Können. Sie führt mir die Szenen und Bilder vor Augen, dass ich teilweise das Gesicht verzogen habe. Wir haben wieder 2 Handlungsstränge, mehrere Perspektiven, wobei sich manches wieder mehr hervortut, als anderes.

Wie befinden uns mit Marith und Thalia auf einem Kriegszug. Marith glänzt dabei mit einem gigantischen Größenwahn, der durch Wiederholungen und wirre Gedankengänge dargestellt wird. Einfach unglaublich genial gemacht. Marith gibt einen überzeugenden Psycho an, der mordend durch die Lande zieht und erobert. Wo er erobert, zerstört er auch und brennt Städte samt Bewohnern bis auf die Grundmauer nieder. Er ist eine Tötungsmaschine mit einer Armee und er kennt kein Halten mehr. Wer kann ihn jetzt noch Aufhalten und wie? Es gibt Anwärter, aber das bedeutet nicht, dass es funktioniert. Hier konnte auch das Ende noch einmal ein Wenig überraschen.

Der zweite Handlungsstrang beschäftigt sich mit Orhan und Darath. Auch hier wird gemordet, intrigiert und ums Leben gebangt, aber hier fehlt mehr Spannung. Es gab super Stellen, aber hier zog es sich auch manchmal ziemlich, vor allem im Mittelteil dieses Strangs. Ganz davon abgesehen, dass mich die Handlung, wie schon beim Auftakt weniger fesseln konnte. Ich habe viel quer gelesen ohne das Gefühl zu haben, etwas zu verpassen. Interessanter wird es erst wieder, als eine Seuche ausbricht und die Stadt darunter leidet. Hier hat die Autorin wieder Großes für mich geleistet, bei der Darstellung, was in den Menschen vorgeht und zu was sie in solchen Situationen fähig sind. Sehr authentisch meiner Meinung nach.

Dieser Teil legt eine interessante Vorlage für das Finale und ich ich bin gespannt, wie es enden werden. Wahrscheinlich mit

Tod! Tod! Tod!


Wieder düster, brutal und absolut mein Fall, wenn es um Marith geht. Bei Handlungsstrang Nummer 2 muss ich stellenweise passen, denn der verhagelt mir leicht den Lesespaß. Solide Dark Fantasy die mit starken Momenten punkten kann, aber auch etwas zäh ist. Wie schon für den Auftakt, gibt es hier 4 Sterne und ich bin mehr als gespannt auf das Finale .
Profile Image for Steven Poore.
Author 22 books97 followers
December 8, 2018
The Court of Broken Knives, the first in this trilogy, was hands-down my book of the year in 2017. The Tower of Living and Dying has more competition this time around, but it also manages to develop and twist the narrative far more than a middle book in a trilogy normally ought to.

No spoilers, but while Marith is touring his Death! Death! Death! show northwards across the continent, this is less his book than Thalia's. Everything gathers pace to a breathtaking climax and a final chapter that defies the reader's expectations just as the very best punk rock might.

If you've made it this far into the glorious and murderous chaos of Anna Smith Spark's world, then you know just how fantastically she uses language, repetition, broad strokes, and needle-sharp observations to tell a story. You won't be disappointed this time either.

In the first review I likened Marith to one of rock'n'roll's early pioneers, despoiling his way across a continent. Now, with Thalia at his side, he's an analogue of Elvis in his pomp, if Elvis had ever led an army of devoted berserkers to war.

Next? Can't wait.

445 reviews25 followers
August 20, 2018
*copy from Netgalley in exchange for a review*

The Tower of Living and Dying. Lets start with this: It is not kidding around. It. Is. Not. Kidding. Around.

This is a story which delves into the darkness which sits at the heart of humanity. It explores the way human nature intermingles atrocities and violence with the capacity for love and joy, even in (perhaps especially within) those who might be seen elsewhere as monsters. In fact the existence of monsters feels a little outside the strokes the story is painting in. I’ll see about unpacking that later. For now, know this. There’s outright slaughter here, the obliteration of towns and cities, wrapped aroundan exploration of a corrosive and nihilistic philosophy. There’s scads of political expediency.

There’s some genuinely epic magic, the sort that makes you go back over a page to understand the consequences. There’s a knowledge of and a need to investigate the love of destruction and violence, and the struggle for creation to survive in the face of the destruction of entropy. This is a book which wants to tell you about people – and people are, broadly speaking, pretty messed up. They’re happy to slash and burn and torture and kill, given a cause and a figurehead and permission. They’ll wrap themselves in the cloak of ideals to bring themselves to power on a tower of skulls. And if they don’t, if they won’t, then they’ll be eliminated by those who do.

This is a bleak view. It’s one which deserves a soundtrack filled with a lashing guitar riff and some serious bass, whilst the lights dim and something, let’s not ask what, flies its mammoth carcass over the audience.

This is a story, absolutely. It’s about a rise to power, about a couple deciding who and what they are. It’s about a decaying empire, and the measures necessary to protect and preserve it. It’s about an imagined past, about constructing a truth which justifies your actions. It’s about starting a campaign of world-wide conquest in blood and fire. About bathing in the blood of your enemies and enjoying it. It’s about relationships, and the compromises you’re willing to make to be with the ones you love, and to build a life you can feel is your own. There’s a lot going on here. A world-changing, world-spanning plot, shaking the status quo to its foundations. Some absolutely fantastic characterisation, giving us complicated, broken, confused people, who are simultaneously trying their best and also absolutely awful. And a tapestry behind them, a world shaped by a deeply embedded past, current events wrought in the spilled blood of their ancestors terrible mistakes.

This is a book with a Big Mood, is what I’m saying.

It’s unabashedly complex. There’s a story here, of conquest and betrayal, and that would’ve been enough to keep me turning the pages, that’s a fact. But sliding underneath the lyrical, wine-dark prose, the language which is so smooth and so sharp that it’s in and out like a stiletto, is everything else.

The characters that started shaping the world are still with us. Marith…ah, poor, broken Marith. A young man who always knew what he was capable of, if he allowed it, has now run off the leash. Anchored by his affections, and by necessity, he’s reaching out to protect himself and those close to him. In doing that, he’s also trying to become a king. There’s a sense of escalation here – as every step he takes binds him tighter to a path of conquest. Marith wants to be seen, to be recognised and loved, and feels the need for that love keenly, and often selfishly. That feeling lives on the edge of more complex turmoil – about his relationship with his father, with a stepmother he’s reduced to an archetype of betrayal, about the unreliable narratives of which he’s constructed his life. Marith needs and wants and reaches out and takes – but he’s self-aware enough to recognise the needs which drive home, and which also drive him toward self-destruction. That doesn’t mean he pushes them away. Not always, maybe even not often. There’s a part of Marith which glorifies in destruction, his death-urge sublimated into laying waste to those around him. That part is twisted around the other, which wants to keep those around him safe, wants their love and their need for him to be as great as his for them. Inevitably he’s disappointed, and the undercurrents of emotional betrayal lace their way through his non-delusions of adequacy. Marith is emotionally warped, and struggling to be true, to be himself – or, perhaps, not to be himself. Whatever he is though, it has potential – for wonder, horror, or more typically, wondrous horror. Marith isn’t a nice man, but he’s incredibly emotionally affecting, and a genuinely compelling protagonist.

In his circle of desperate attempts to feel alive, to feel life and love and humanity, and to destroy everything which gives him those feelings before he’s betrayed, he’s ably assisted, if that’s the word, by Thalia. Thalia was the high priestes of a decaying empire once, a woman who made a living of sorts living in a compound, never able to leave, sacrificing men, women and children daily for the glory of her god. Thalia isn’t an especially nice person either. That said, she carries her scars differently than Marith. With more dignity, perhaps. Though her vulnerability is just as clear, seething under the surfaces as she finds herself tied to a man she loves but is often horrified by. Still, she’s nobody’s fool or pet, Thalia. Kindness in the immediate sense she has, but her own past an own her as much as Marith’s – perhaps more so, as she seems to have a firmer idea o what it is.
They’re the power-couple of tyranny. Broken, tortured souls, doing some good and a lot of terrible, terrible things in service to their own goals – and they’re grand goals, to be sure. Rebuilding the past. Living a secure, bountiful live of love and harmony. But somehow they seem to involve rather a lot of blood.

Then there’s our man in Sorlost, the sclerotic squirt of a city which is all that remains of a once-great Empire. The emotional complexity here actually made me gasp more than once; an arranged political marriage and a preference for other men are the undercurrents to a complicated personal life. But that life, the love for more than one person, in different ways, is nuanced, thoughtful, one which is explored with care. It’s laced through a lot of cutting edge politics (and the appearance of knives in Sorlost’s politics means that this isn’t entirely metaphorical). A lot of people end up dead when someone’s trying to make a better world. If Marith’s nihilism does that through violence, through the adrenaline and semi-sexual surges of destruction and mayhem, this quieter death, building alliances and dynasties through reputation-shredding and assassination is a difference of kind, rather than type. The issue here is that despite the best motives in the world, death follows. Is Martih more honest? Perhaps. Does the goal matter more or less than the result? These aren’t quite questions at the forefront of the mind, between death-squads and marauding armies, but they’re questions the text asks, nonetheless. It’s there to say, who are our protagonists. Are they heroes? When things get messy, when things aren’t simple, when you can’t fix what you’ve broken, what happens next? These aren’t heroes, exactly – they’re people trying to do their best in the world around them, and their lives and loves and thoughts and feelings are as vital as that of the reader, in their complexity, in their emphasis on shades of grey, even in their embrace of occasional absolutes.
Reading through, these are complicated, awkward people, and if they’re not people you’d want to spend any time with, they’re still delightfully, appallingly human.

The plot? Look, I’m not going to spoil that for you. But there’s a lot going on in between the pages. Armies on the march. Ancient magics revealed. Some charmingly byzantine political maoeuvering. Crosses. Double crosses. Triple-crosses. Basically all the betrayal you can swallow, really. I’m surprised anyone shakes hands in this book without checking to make sure they get more than a stump back. There’s life and love out there too, and exploring of different lands, some damned and broken, others less so. This is the book that throws open the horror and wonder that encapsulated the world, and shows what’s out there to explore. Admittedly, that exploration is often done at the point of a blade. This book is a long, complicated refrain filled with power chords. It wants you to feel, feel the intensity, feel the love, feel the death, feel the anger. It wants to talk about the eroticism of male violence, the way it’s subsumed into a society which ties up killing with release and a social death wish. It wants to talk about life, and the way stability and arrogance lead to calcification, and that breaking out of that sort of stasis may or may not end up being a good thing. It explores systems and the way they work, but it does so through the agency of its characters – thoughtful, appalling people who live and laugh and love and occasionally find joy in torture and massacre.

In the end, this is a breath-taking. It has amazing scope, and sets out to explore that narrative space with the reader in an intelligent, thoughtful and uncompromising way. It does that, lets you get udner the skin of people and society, and ask some large, interesting questions – and also tells an absolutely storming story, filled with magic, mayhem, conquest, politics and romance.

It’s great, is what I’m saying. If you’re wondering if this is the sequel you wanted after The Court of Broken Knives…yes, yes it is. Should you read it? Yes, yes you should.
Profile Image for Peter.
24 reviews3 followers
July 5, 2018
Anna Smith Spark’s second volume of her Empires of Dust Trilogy, The Tower of Living and Dying (to be published in August by Harper Voyager), continues the careers of her three main protagonists: Marith, demon-descended, with a hopelessly addictive, deeply nihilistic but also monstrously charismatic personality, his lover, Thalia, enclosed priestess and ritual slaughterer of adults and children until he by accident escapes with her, and Orhan, over-well-meaning and rational aristocratic amateur plotter. There is a clarity now about what the actions are we must focus in. Over all is that, as the last book established, the world may well be being changed by the thrilling and horrific power of Marith, “channelling” as they say, but, oh dear, this time for real, his monstrous ancestor, Amrath, world-conqueror and destroyer of cities on a par with Genghis Khan or Tamburlaine (and don’t try to defend them – towers of skulls replacing cities is indefensible) – but even more frightening given he is a god or demon. Marith’s assault on the world continues and expands, in a way that is unpredictable and hideously fascinating. His relationship with Thalia develops, enlarges and complicates. Even as he grows into more monstrous powers, she still has the potential to destroy, and maybe to redeem, him. And of course that’ll be resolved in the final volume. The uncertainty holds our attention through this volume, even if he’s beginning to destroy various bits of this world. The divine magic each (in different ways) can access (power over living and especially dying) is increasing through the book – leading, yes! – to even more genuinely horrific battle-scenes and monsters.

That’s one part of the book – potentially if overdone ludicrous, but not in Anna Smith Sparks’s beautiful and at times terrifying staccato prose – like James Ellroy drunk on the finest wine. Moreover the appeal of her writing is that there is always a range of voices and attitudes (can be rare in fantasy!) Orhan dwells in Sorlost, a brazen-walled city of vast beauty and no future, but he plans, as realistically as he can, ways of enabling it to survive, cope, even revive. He is a fantasy hero working with civil servants, not magic, to create a better state for all. He encounters the pragmatic problems of political alliances and factions, and of the volatility and irrationality of public opinion (and of keeping a very complicated emotional life together). The author is wonderfully empathetic to both his liberal idealism, and equally the fearful religious-born irrationalism of the people he seeks to help. It’s a difficult place to rule, with a sclerotic political system, a self-serving and self-deluding elite still harking back to past glories, and a decayed and failing economy and state, as haunted and rendered powerless by its decline as, well, us. But, as we readers and all who live in that world know, the one city where the fury of Amrath’s world-burning conquest was halted, first time round.

And opposition in his own land (The White Isles) exists to Marith – Landra survives, whose younger brother, his lover’s murder?/sacrifice? was the first sign of his demonic destructiveness. And Tobias, who as real, professional solder, a mercenary, and at one time his commanding officer, knows the reality of war. “That’s the biggest load of cock I’ve heard in days” he declares in response to the wonderful glamourising war-song of Marith’s army (and Anna Smith Spark does archaic poetry to perfection). All a real soldier wants is to get out, and retire in peace to some spot with good ale. It’s a good viewpoint to counterpoint to bloodlust and world conquest; but how to achieve this while Marith is in control?

So, if Volume II of The Trilogy is a mechanism to propel us towards The Final Confrontation and Last battle, Anna Smith Spark has set it well and truly in motion, though quite where towards is not at all certain. She is a specialist in pulling the rug from under the reader’s feet, and a rejector of simple solutions to the problems and conflicts of Living and Dying. It’s more complicated than one side defeating another and bringing peace in our time. But oh, it will be worth the wait when we move to her final confrontations.

And one more aspect of the book. Much fantasy is purely diagrammatic – standard game pieces moving across a then cardboard world. Ann Smith Sparks’ world gets clearer and more definite, real and engagingly complicated, through this volume. The folkways of the White isles are as vividly described, believable, and unpredictable as in any work of ethnography; Sorlost’s ruined splendour glows entrancing through its hot nights, like all great cities about to fall; Illyr, Amrath’s homeland, is both real and unreal, spectacularly unsettling and original. I’d believe in her dragons too (you must have realised she’d bring them back!) – not mere flying reptiles with a flame-thrower, like some popular examples, but a powerful frightening natural force beyond our limited conception of natural forces. In some fantasy, magic is just a set of game rules. In Anna Smith Spark’s work it is an encounter with the truly other, what is beyond defined sets of rules. This makes her world more than a limited generic game: she has created a full-blooded and powerful new universe, as desperate and complex as our own, and made it compelling and beautiful. The Tower of Living and Dying will grab your attention. It is important to read it and respond to it. Bring on the next volume, Anna!
Profile Image for Jordan (Forever Lost in Literature).
818 reviews104 followers
August 9, 2018
Find this review at Forever Lost in Literature!

Last year, I read and was blown away by The Court of Broken Knives and could not wait to get my hands on a copy of the sequel because I desperately needed more of Anna Smith Spark lush prose. I am thrilled to say that Tower of Living and Dying completely lived up to my expectations--and then some more. There is something so engrossing about Spark's poetic, addicting writing style. Her writing never fails to make me want to just slow down and almost luxuriate in each and every word and phrase. This might make it take longer to read the book, but it's so worth it.

In this second installment in the Empires of Dust trilogy, the story picks up pretty much where the previous book left off with the same general cast of characters. The plot and overall storyline felt a bit slower-paced and more like a bridge than in The Court of Broken Knives, and I really enjoyed this small difference for providing a new tone. There are still plenty of high-intensity battle scenes and other intense moments, of course, but there seemed to be a much heavier focus on the characters that I loved. This book allows readers to really get into the heads of Thalia, Tobias, Orhan, and Marith (to a lesser extent) more deeply in order to understand more of where they're at in the story and what their motivations are. I was particularly hooked on Thalia and Orhan's POVs this time around, both of which I felt had so much incredible development that I could not get enough of. I am also endlessly intrigued by the dynamic between Thalia and Marith, and I cannot wait to see how it continues to play out in the next book.

There are a lot of different parts of this book that I could talk about, but I want to focus on one specific example that involves a deadly fever that overtakes a city. Now, I've read a lot of books that feature some sort of plague or terrifying illness that invades a city, but it's safe to say that Spark has written some of the most chilling, truly horrifying plague scenes that I've ever read. I literally had chills, and despite the fact that I'm a huge germaphobe myself and usually avoid these sorts of things, I simply couldn't look away. Spark just has a way of completely drawing the reader in and making them feel exactly what is happening. I could feel the terror of people trapped in the city during the plague, I could feel the excitement and intensity of Marith's battle scenes, and I could feel the pain and despair that so many characters felt at different times. Spark's books aren't just entertainment, they're an experience.

As mentioned, the main perspectives that we follow are Thalia, Marith, Orhan, and Tobias, along with one other minor character's that I really enjoyed. In this book, we still get to experience some time in the city of Sorlost, but we also get to explore so much of the world outside of Sorlost as Marith travels around on his attempts to basically take over the world. I liked how Spark split up the book into various parts that mainly seemed to be based upon general location of the characters. This really made the book feel exceptionally cohesive and clear to me, which in turn made for a wonderful reading experience.

Another thing that I loved about this book was how much more background and history we are able to learn about a few of the characters. Marith, in particular, had a lot of background and family history revealed that was so captivating and helped me to better understand him as a character. I also appreciated being able to learn more about the world and various cities and peoples, which seemed like something that happened fairly often in this book. And did I mention that there are more dragons? I made a pretty big deal about dragons in my review for the first book, so seeing another dragon in this book made me so happy.

As always, there was still plenty of death, blood, killing, and violence in general to really cement this book in its beautiful grimdark shine. I'm not sure I've ever read any books where an author can make killing sound quite as beautiful and exciting as Spark makes it sound in her books, and for that I will always be completely enchanted with it. Her characters are all rather grey as far as morals go (okay, so some might be really, really dark grey), so while reading I would occasionally sit back and think, 'wait, why am I rooting for this person?'-- but then I read more of Spark's captivating writing and am swept back into the multi-faceted and deeply complex motivations and thoughts of each character and can't help but want to know more about them.

So this review has been a bit all over the place, but the bottom line here is that I loved the second book just as much as the first, and I'm just so glad I've had a chance to read these books. This is probably obvious, but overall I've given The Tower of Living and Dying five stars! Now what a I to do until the third book comes out?
Profile Image for S. Naomi Scott.
270 reviews27 followers
September 30, 2018
Following last year's Court of Broken Knives I had high expectations for this book, and I have to say I was not disappointed. As with the first book in the series, The Tower of Living and Dying may not be everybody's cup of tea, but if you enjoyed the first you're going to love the second.

Anna Smith Spark has a unique way with words, combining elements of Homeric tradition with lyrical prose, alternating fragmented sentence structure with long form descriptions, and even changing from third- to first person POV on occasion, and it all works so well. You're drawn along with the narrative, the stylistic changes adding to the emotional impact of each scene or set piece. The battles especially are frenetic and chaotic, making you feel like you're there in the middle of the action, living (and dying) with the characters, giving the quieter character-driven scenes even more impact and strength.

Speaking of the characters, there's a lot of development going on in this book. Marith is growing into his role as the great conquering hero (the word hero here falling closer to a Classical definition than the modern one), Tobias is embracing his role as the everyman, and Orhan is beginning to realise his mistakes as a statesman overstretching himself, but perhaps the most development seems to go to Thalia, the ex-High Priestess turned Queen. She grows from a seemingly pliant 'trophy wife' woman of no agency into one of the more essential characters in the final battle; she holds Marith's life in her hands on a number of occasions throughout the book, both figuratively and literally; it is Thalia who talks directly to the reader, and never once does she make excuses for her own actions, her own choices. She may not be a sword-wielding kick-ass heroine but for me she is definitely one of the more intriguing characters this series has introduced so far.

I've been lucky enough to hear the author read from her works on a number of occasions now, and from reading both Court and this one I'm certain that the best way to enjoy these books is as stories told around a campfire, late at night. They're so definitely written to be read out loud that for the first time in my life I'm actually considering signing up to Audible to get the audiobooks.

All in all, this book gets what I consider to be a worthy five stars. Now I just have to wait a year for book three.
Profile Image for Ned Ludd.
708 reviews16 followers
February 21, 2019
Favourite read of the year. Yea, yea I know it’s only the end of February. Still........
Profile Image for Pranav Prabhu.
170 reviews57 followers
July 10, 2022
The Tower of Living and Dying was a significant step-up from The Court of Broken Knives in terms of more structured and engaging storytelling, enhanced by the unique writing style. Spark’s prose is captivating in its visceral and urgent grotesqueness, punctuated by terse and fragmentary sentences that sketch a vivid atmosphere, along with the occasional stream of consciousness narration. The book has two major threads: the first following Marith’s rise and reconquest of other lands and the other about political instability in Sorlost.

What made this a more compelling reading experience than the first book were the characters, glimpses into their mental states as they grapple with varied situations. Marith’s royal rampage across part of the continent drove a significant part of this book, and his perspective remains the most unhinged. He’s a fascinating protagonist: a narcissistic, pathetic figure with immense, ambiguous magical power and the ability to win people over to fight for him, but with a progressively deteriorating fragmented sanity leading to very unpredictable and contradicting feats, decisions, and conflict. Thalia’s brief interludes were much better integrated as she became a larger part of the story, and while I still find her PoV less compelling than the others, it isn’t by much.

The new perspectives of Landra and Nilesh were also pretty interesting, providing a different view of more central characters while being short enough to not replace the more established PoVs. Tobias was great as usual, his character functioning as the lone voice of common sense amidst Marith’s feverish insanity, so his chapters provided some necessary levity as well.

Orhan is the central perspective for the Sorlost thread, almost completely unconnected from the other PoVs. His lucky ability to wrangle himself into a position of political power in the previous book immediately begins to crumble away, as he faces more enemies and challenges at every turn. I was surprised at my investment in observing Orhan’s life slowly fall apart as the story progressed, to the point where he had no idea what he was doing and why he was doing any of it, a mess of depravity and hypocrisy that had begun with the best of intentions.

The word isn’t too deep, but there were some very intriguing elements introduced in this book. The gestmet — inhuman gods of life, more demonstrations of the magic and dragons, the more overt hints of Altrersyr connections to death and demonic entities. I still have no idea how this trilogy is going to end or how exactly these two separate threads are going to intertwine, so I’m excited to read the concluding volume to find out how this all wraps up with the many directions the story can take, given some characters’ unpredictability.
Profile Image for Yasser Ahmed.
42 reviews8 followers
July 31, 2018
The Tower of Living and Dying is the second instalment in the Empires of Dust trilogy and ticks all the boxes that a middle book should be ticking. Second books often fall into the trap of just being mostly filler or spending the majority of time setting up the final book but not this one. The Tower of Living and Dying instead just continues on immediately from The Court of Broken Knives. It’s easier to look at it as one long story broken up into separate volumes à la the First Law trilogy.

The Tower of Living and Dying begins with Marith coming home to the White Isles and dealing with the fallout he caused at the end of the last book. It very quickly becomes clear that he won’t be content with ruling just the Isles and almost immediately goes on to start assaulting the mainland cities. He takes Thalia along and her seeing him in full-on conqueror mode results in most of the strife between them. Meanwhile Orhan is trying to regain control and normalcy in the wake of the recent unrest in Sorlost. There are a few other POVs including a couple of new ones discussed below that really help flesh out the story from multiple angles.

Everyone who has read The Court of Broken Knives knows of Anna Smith Spark’s engrossing and almost aggressive style of writing. It’s not so much what she does as what she excludes. Casual neglect of grammatical rules and a lack of punctuation sound like they’d be a nightmare to read through, but it works incredibly well here. Every action scene contains these short rapid-style sentences:

“Everything utter confusion, pressed so tight, everything shattering. Shredded. Choking. Drowning in each other. Crushing too tight to breathe. Eyes staring, swallowing each other’s sweat. Everywhere swords and spears and horses and metal grinding remorseless against metal and skin and bone. Push. Push. Hold. The line wavering. Thrashing like a boy cracking a rope. Osen’s left burning. Osen’s left falling apart. Just hold.”

It’s exhausting reading these passages, it’s such a visceral description. The reader doesn’t really know what’s going on, what the bigger picture is in the moment but neither does the soldier. Spark also makes great use chapter lengths, a few times at climactic moments there are one-page chapters that just halt the action, letting the reader gear up for an act’s culmination. One in particular is just fourteen words, four sentences long but still conveys a sort of respite from the action and builds up anticipation for what happens next.

There are a few POVs but Marith continues to be the main character. He also continues to be detestable. He becomes exactly the kind of person who believes that they are the most important person in the world – except in this case, he actually is. He thinks little to nothing of others, able to casually obliterate an entire city over the perceived slight of one man. His true personality is revealed in one line in particular:

“The secret hidden pleasure of every human heart, that it is waiting to die and to kill”

He thinks this in the heat of a battle when he feels most alive, and attributes it to everyone, both sides. The reader knows – inherently and also through the knowledge of other POVs – that this is entirely untrue, but it does reveal Marith’s true feelings. Throughout almost the entire first book Marith is suicidal, content to let his addictions consume him. If he died, he wouldn’t have cared, and it is now clear that he holds other lives in the same disregard.

Marith’s relationship with Thalia is another example of his vain outlook. Any time he thinks of her, it’s always in a completely objectified manner. He can only see her as another one of his possessions. In fact, I don’t think that there is a single time that he looks at her and doesn’t remind himself how beautiful and fragile she is. Fortunately, throughout the book, Thalia starts to come out of her shell and is perpetually in flux regarding Marith. She repeatedly blames herself for the atrocities he commits and slowly pulls away from him. It’s a slow growth in character but it’s realistic and it should be fascinating to see its conclusion in the final book.

“[I should have] Left her safe with Matrina to wait on her and teach her good eastern ways, had her brought over in triumph, crowned and robed in gold”

I won’t go into much detail to avoid spoilers, but my favourite chapters were that of Lan and Tobias. I’m a sucker for points of view of privileged persons forced to live as commoners and how they react to it. Lan’s chapters make for an interesting perspective as she sees just how little the common White Isle folk care or are affected by the tumultuous events happening on their island. Tobias is a lot of fun to read, he’s basically a stand-in for the reader – on several occasions I found myself having the exact same reactions as he did to developments in the story. I’m looking forward to learning more about him in the final book; there are some questions dangled about his past that are not fully explored so I hope they get answered eventually.

The other storyline running in tandem with Marith’s is Orhan’s back in Sorlost. It heavily contrasts with Marith’s as opposed to armies clashing over and over, it’s politicians moving against each other trying to take control of one city. Instead of successful military tactics, it’s inelegant solutions to a steadily worsening situation. Orhan, through some trial and error, becomes quite adept at his realpolitik game. He gradually loses his morals to deal with his ever-sinking ship of a city. Darath on the hand is just way out of depth – put succinctly by Celyse as ‘a little, angry, blustering boy’. He was never my favourite in The Court of Broken Knives, but he truly shows his colours when things look bad and he suggests they run away from everything, leave all those who know and rely upon them to their deaths. Definitely in the running for least likeable character. It’s not helped by his and Orhan’s incredibly toxic relationship. I’m not sure if it’s meant to written the way it is but they yell and argue and break up and make up like teenagers; it’s exhausting to read (not in a good way).

There’s one more POV that was introduced in A Tower of Living and Dying. I don’t want to mention details, but I will say that it felt a little transparent. It was included only quite late into the book, as if it was afterthought, as if Spark realised she needed another POV in Sorlost to properly describe what was happening. I thought it was a useful insight in that regard but perhaps it should have been introduced earlier to be more organic.

I enjoyed The Court of Broken Knives, but I didn’t love it. The Tower of Living and Dying took everything good from its predecessor, refined it and included some great new additions. It doesn’t try to be its own story but is a clear continuation of the universe and leaves enough plot hooks left to be resolved in Empires of Dust 3. I don’t know where the next book is going (there’s still half the map to explore!) but I can’t wait to read it.

Note: I received an early copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Anna, HarperVoyager and NetGalley for the copy.
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