Mark Lawrence's Reviews > The Court of Broken Knives

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
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I’ve read 1* reviews of this book and I’ve read 5* reviews, and I can see where both of them are coming from, though I definitely lean in the direction of the latter rating.

This is a long review so here is the TL:DR for the impatient among you:

This is a very well written book – by which I mean that the writing is excellent. Ironically that writing may well be a barrier between many readers and enjoying it.

This is an interesting book – by which I mean it evokes interesting questions of a literary nature. It is not a book with a well-engineered plot where everything comes together in the end with an almighty bang a la Sanderson.

This is a grim book - Nasty stuff happens to innocent people. The level of detail is often small in these instances but the quality of the writing makes you cringe at them even so.

This is a book I advise you try – I don’t know if you will like it but it’s a bold experiment and feels like something new.

To the review!

The most popular 1* review of this book says:

The writing in this book is killing me already. For example: "Big as a cart horse. Deep fetid marsh rot snot shit filth green." & "Imagine saying that to Gulius's family: he was killed fighting a dragon. He was killed fighting a dragon. A dragon killed him. A dragon."

I understand the reaction but disagree with the implication that the writing is not good. I think the writing is excellent, but it is certainly not the sort of writing that fantasy fans are used to. This is a book written in a refreshingly literary style more familiar to the readers of literary fiction. There is a strong voice to the prose, which I liked a lot. I needed my word-brain exercised after the last couple of books I dipped into and abandoned where the words fell dead on the page.

However, many fantasy readers will not like the change. This is in no way to suggest that they lack the intelligence or sophistication to appreciate the work … just that it will not be what they were expecting.

As a case in point, consider one of the offending lines from above. “He was killed fighting a dragon. He was killed fighting a dragon. A dragon killed him. A dragon.” Writers are schooled against repetition and redundancy. But everyday conversation is full of these things, especially when we are wrestling with a concept. Dialogue in fantasy books is generally a stand-in for genuine conversation. Playwrights do not write dialogue like fantasy writers do since they need the audience seeing the person speaking the lines to believe in them, there and then, in the moment. Some of the dialogue in TCoBK follows this style.

The book moves from first person to third, from present tense to past tense, takes an omniscient point of view at times, and varies these things for a given character. The effect can be quite dramatic and powerful, but also may unsettle a reader.

Fantasy writing is generally all about the story, specifically: all about the plot. Many readers want prose that draws no attention to itself whatsoever. A line that makes a reader sit up and notice is, by some lights, taking the reader out of the story. The prose, some say, is a plot delivery mechanism. This can work very well. I really enjoyed the Brandon Sanderson book I read. The writing delivered plot and I didn’t notice it. You will notice the writing in this book.

"The moon was vast in the sky, the stars broken silver."

I've not found eminently quotable lines so much as a constant stream of elegant, poetic lines that do their job. The linguistic skill is aimed mostly at description rather than at aphorisms. The effect is cumulative over a page rather than shining from one line.

Speaking of plot: this is a chaotic book where it is very hard to predict what will happen next and where. I never had a sense of overarching plot. It is more a series of things that happened, though focusing down on two characters and their journey toward an uncertain destiny. This is not a bad thing, unless you really need a plot.

The next thing that fantasy readers tend to like are characters. If they aren’t all about plot then readers tend to be all about character. I’ve had my own struggle to convince readers to get on board with books about characters who are merely interesting rather than good/heroic/moral. I do though, I hope, throw the readers a bone by making them charismatic and/or funny to compensate in some way their despicable elements.

TCoBK goes a step further and presents us with characters who are generally horrible in almost every aspect and lack even humour or charisma to hang onto. The main character in particular is very hard to like and whilst there are interesting things about him I never felt emotionally engaged with his plight, or indeed that of any character in the book.

The pacing has been mentioned, and it can be erratic. Toward the end there are several longish contemplations of the countryside, and the description there is just excellent, really beautiful. But pacing-wise … not so sure it was the best place for it. Description throughout the book is a strength though.

Grimness. This book is pretty grim, not so much for the gory detail but for the things that are done, the way they are done, and who does them. Babies are killed, children drowned, young women mutilated, innocents burned, murder abounds, kindness is in short supply.

Despite the level and quality of description I would say the book is physically shallow and thematically deep. The cities and wilds are described wonderfully but with the characters it never feels as if we are physically deep in them. Several of them get burned, beyond a mention of it aching the issue is pushed aside. Injuries and mind-wrecking hangovers get similar short thrift. Being exposed to a cold wind for the first time, snow, having sex for the first time, all similarly relegated to the background in favour of more existential angst (not said in a mocking way - I like existential angst and suffer from it myself).

However, it is still, to me, an interesting book. It feels as though there are themes being addressed here. I’m not going to (or qualified to) lay out a full literary analysis, but it’s the kind of book that warrants one. There is an oft-repeated focus on the dichotomy between disgust and desire. And a focus, paralleled by drug addiction, on the self-destructive and doom-laden impulse of youth. A focus on the most physically beautiful people doing the most repulsive things. A focus on the desire to be led battling the desire to be free, and how that leader can be a person or simple fatalism.

An interesting book to read and fascinating to discuss afterwards! I think you should read it and form an opinion for yourself.

Oh, oh! And I learned two new words! Loggia and caravanserai.

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Reading Progress

August 29, 2017 – Started Reading
August 29, 2017 – Shelved
August 29, 2017 –
page 18
3.83% "A refreshingly literary style. It certainly has a voice! I can imagine that will put off as many or more fantasy readers as it draws in but God I needed my word-brain exercised after the last couple of books I dipped into and abandoned.

Sure, you can over do things, but language is a powerful and beautiful thing and it pains me to see it dropped dead onto the page to deliver story like an instruction manual."
September 10, 2017 –
page 138
29.36% "It's keeping me interested. No idea what is going to happen or if I will like it."
September 19, 2017 –
page 312
66.38% ""The moon was vast in the sky, the stars broken silver."

I've not found eminently quotable lines so much as a constant stream of elegant, poetic lines that do their job. The linguistic skill is aimed mostly at description rather than aphorisms."
September 21, 2017 –
page 389
82.77% "I've learned two new words reading this ... and sadly forgotten one of them already :/

One was caravanserai.

The other meant "a room open to the outside / missing one wall" but for the life of me I can't remember what the word was..."
September 22, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jon Adams Excellent review. If I hadn't already read it, I'd be purchasing it.

message 2: by Tammy (new) - added it

Tammy Excellent review; you've sold me. I'll add it to my never ending list of books to read...

Just curious, it looks like this is the first book of a series. Will you read Book 2 when it's released?

message 3: by Claudette (new) - added it

Claudette Gabbs That review makes me want to check it out.

Lukasz Excellent review.

message 5: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Your review tells me I would be among those who wouldn't like it. The true-to-life dialogue writing style wouldn't bother me but the changing tenses would be a focus buster, trying to change gears from one tense to another. The questionable plot, unengaging characters, and erratic pacing, checks all my negative down votes of interesting, enjoyable reading. The extreme grimness clinches the 'no deal' for me. As you know, I had a difficult time with Jorg so I am sure I couldn't handle anything worse even if there was a great plot, fast pacing and charismatic characters.

Anton This is such a great book. I really don't understand why many struggle with it... Mercenaries? Check. Courtly intrigues? Check. Dragons? Check. Memorable setting and characters. Check & check. Poetic writing full of gothic beauty. Check. Check. Check...

message 7: by David (new)

David Watkins Unexplained and unrealistic pychopathology of the murderous protagonist makes it impossible to recommnd this skillfully written bloodbath of a novel. No arc of character development is apparent, and I see no reason to wait for a follow-up volume in hopes of encountering such. The prose is beautiful, and the author is talented, and I will look for other books by her.

 Charlie - A Reading Machine great review.. still unsure whether to try it

message 9: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Lawrence Charlie - A Reading Machine wrote: "great review.. still unsure whether to try it"


message 10: by Nimrod (last edited Nov 13, 2017 10:42AM) (new) - added it

Nimrod Daniel Superb review, Mark! really. Why superb you ask? Because it's way more informative for me in comparison to other great reviews I've read so far.

Lucky or me, I "know" pretty good what book I'm gonna like, and when I have too many doubts regarding a book. That's what happens when you've been using GR for a few years, I guess. Unfortunately, when I have doubts and take the "risk" anyway I usually understand why I had so many doubts in regard to that book.

In this case, it looks like ACoBK would be a huge gamble. But still, I find it quite interesting to check it out :)

message 11: by Wissam (new)

Wissam “He was killed fighting a dragon. He was killed fighting a dragon. A dragon killed him. A dragon.”

This line reminded me so much of Bakker's annoying writing. (Sorry if you're one of the people annoyed by his mention, Mark :P ) Reading the rest of the review I could have sworn you were reviewing a Bakker book rather than someone else's. So I looked at the author's website:

Anna’s favourite authors and key influences are R. Scott Bakker, Steve Erikson, M. John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault.

Thanks for the review, but I don't think I'll be reading this book. Bakker is a big no-no.

message 12: by Sarah (new) - added it

Sarah Somehow your review makes me both want to read this book and also the banish it from my TBR forever. I like books that are different. I like books that strive to be more...

But I also like plot and characters...

message 13: by Stig (new) - added it

Stig Sydtangen I'll have to give this book a go. My interest was already piqued when I read the lines cited from the book, but the review itself sold it.

message 14: by Cliff (new)

Cliff Dunn I purchased the book today because it reminds me of some themes that I am exploring in a fantasy role playing game. Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful review. 👍

message 15: by Loki (new) - rated it 4 stars

Loki This was a really good way to put it. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing and is an excellent novel; unless you’re looking to mindlessly lose yourself in a smoother, lighter read, and providing you’re not too aghast by some of the darker contents. The latter of which draws as many readers as it repulses.

message 16: by Sambora (new) - added it

Sambora Very interesting review. This has been on my TBR pile for a while and honestly everything about it sounds great. I think anything that breaks the mold or does something different is worth trying. I'm excited to read it and see what side I fall on.

RedJorgAncrath "caravanserai"
Someone hasn't read Malazan Book of the Fallen! :)

message 18: by Kate (new) - added it

Kate M T I got this book in £1 shop and when I read few lines I new it will be great . Bargain buy👌🏼

RedJorgAncrath This is another really good review. I loved it at times, and hated it to the point I almost quit. I gave it a 1 and 5 star review while reading it.

I would echo your comment: "I would say the book is physically shallow and thematically deep."

message 20: by Marc (new) - rated it 5 stars

Marc You should have remembered "caravanserai" from The Golem and the Jinni" ... which is where I learned it, following reading your review of the book. ;)

message 21: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Lawrence Marc wrote: "You should have remembered "caravanserai" from The Golem and the Jinni" ... which is where I learned it, following reading your review of the book. ;)"

I read this one first.

message 22: by Manuel (new)

Manuel Alright, you've convinced me.

message 23: by Marc (last edited Aug 17, 2020 09:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Marc Mark wrote: "I read this one first."

Ahh... thought I might have caught you on a tedious point of inanity. My bad. lol

It is a good word, though. Hopefully I'll come across it more often now that I'm looking for it.

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