This is gonna be a weird review to write, cos I actually read this book twice in the space of four months and didn’t enjoy it the first time round. Then I was convinced to give it another go (cos apparently reading 31 books for a month-long reading event wasn’t quite enough to do without reading some of them twice) and ended up liking it more the second time round. I don’t really know why that was, but maybe I’ll end up interrogating it a bit here. Or maybe I won’t, I dunno, I don’t exactly plan these reviews very well lol.
So THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES follows a few different threads. On the one hand it’s the story of a mercenary company hired by a group of conspiring noblemen to assassinate the emperor of the decadent and declining Sekemleth Empire. Here we follow Tobias, a captain in the Free Company of the Sword, and his squad of morally dubious mercenaries, among whom is a strange new recruit called Marith. We also follow Orhan Emereth, the nobleman at the centre of the plot on the emperor’s life, as he conspires and plans to ‘improve’ things once the emperor is dead and the old regime is swept away. We also follow Thalia, the High Priestess of Tanis, the god of living and dying, who is caught up in a particularly shady part of the conspiracy. It’s a good, solid grimdark premise. Morally questionable mercenaries, power-hungry nobles and decadent empires are a staple of the genre and I was more than happy to read another grimdark book focussed on those tropes.
I think this book is probably about Marith more than any other one particular character, but my fave parts were Orhan’s chapters. I just have a weakness for a good conspiracy plotline and watching events unfold as Orhan plots and executes his scheme, with varying degrees of success, were the best parts of the book for me. I liked the exploration of his guilt at some of the pretty despicable things he has to do for the conspiracy to be successful within the confines of the laws and customs of society in the Sekemleth Empire. As the plot gains traction and becomes more complicated to traverse, he finds himself with some pretty grim choices to make; for example, in Sorlost (the empire’s capital city) the punishment for treason is not only one’s own death, but the death of your entire family and household. Death by burning. Similarly, the High Priestess is expected to ritually sacrifice human beings to sate the bloodlust of the god Tanis, and she is expected to do this no matter how young she may be and the effects it might have on her psyche. Orhan sometimes finds himself in a position to, shall we say, enforce the law and uphold customs. But it’s all for the greater good, right? Or so he keeps telling himself anyway.
Not sure how much I can really say about Marith without getting spoilery, cos we don’t really know who he is or where he’s come from at the start of the book, though it doesn’t take that long to find out. All the same, I don’t like to rob the reader of these kind of discoveries, even if they take place fairly early on. What I will say is I actually found Marith the least interesting character. I think this might be because he’s not really morally grey in the way we usually think about grimdark characters, I think he’s just straight up evil. He’s an arrogant, controlling, sometimes pathetic, bloodthirsty psychopath whose purest joy comes in the form of killing people. There wasn’t much I found interesting about that. I think it’s the people around him who kept me at all invested in his story throughout most of the book. Tobias, his captain, is a main viewpoint character, and also an all-round double-crossing piece of shit, but one with a semblance of a moral compass, even if it is majorly defective. Tobias doesn’t enjoy killing, he just does it for money (maybe that’s worse than enjoying it, I dunno) and will not hesitate to stab someone in the back, either literally or figuratively, if there’s some coin to be made. It’s that conflict between the code he lives by as a mercenary and the inherent lack of trust and loyalty that comes with the job that was interesting about him. He’s a hypocrite too mind, in that he’s not even really loyal to his fellow mercenaries in the way that ‘honour among thieves’ can sometimes be depicted in grimdark. A lot of these men really are just selfish and disloyal to the core.
A few things did significantly hamper my enjoyment of the book though. These are things that bothered me much more during my first read, but that I was able to ignore somewhat the second time round, but were still very noticeable. For me, the main weakness of The Court of Broken Knives is that it tries to lean too hard into the grimdark tropes and it sometimes gets in the way of the actual story. Like, everything is so so terrible and there’s not an ounce of goodness in this world and there are barely any redeemable qualities in any of the characters, they’re all just irredeemably terrible people, but not always that interesting for it. Everything smells of shit and piss and the words blood and death are used almost as much as and and the. I dunno, at times I just felt like I was being pounded over the head with just how grim and just how dark this book is, without it always serving much narrative purpose. I feel like I got a good sense of the book’s setting for that, but flowery descriptions of gore and bloodlust aren’t what makes grimdark interesting to me. A couple more very subjective things I didn’t get on with about the writing style as well, and that was just that there was a lot of repetition of certain phrases (Death! Death! DEATH!!! was mentioned a lot). On its own I don’t think that would have bothered me that much, but I think it just combined with how brow-beaten I felt by the grimdarkness at times. I found Thalia’s treatment particularly disappointing as well. As a High Priestess who’s been confined to the temple her entire life and groomed from childhood to ritually murder people, then to find herself out in the world experiencing it for the first time, her story seems so full of potential. Except she just ends up as baggage for most of the book, fodder for Marith to have some kind of spiritual reawakening to fulfil what he sees as his destiny for the sake of his ‘beautiful girl’. I found myself conflicted by her ‘feelings’ for him, such as they are. I can see how being rescued from probable rape and murder might endear him to her, but instead she just constantly talks about how beautiful he is and this somehow assuages her concerns about him being a baby-killing psychopath. Thematically this might be an interesting rumination on the self-destruction and hedonism of youth (I don’t think it’s ever clearly stated but I think Thalia and Marith are late teens/perhaps very early 20s) but without the depth of character to go with it I thought it fell a bit flat.
That said, the story itself is good when not hampered by the prose. As I said, earlier, I love a good conspiracy plot and as Marith’s identity and past is revealed things start to ramp up and start to get veeeeerrry dicey. I want to give a shout out to Rate as well (probably spelled wrong, I listened to the audiobook gimme a break), potentially my fave character despite being more of a side character in the mercenary company. Anna Smith Spark wrote some great gallows humour among the soldiers and Rate was usually at the centre of it. I did actually laugh out loud a few times at his bleak quips and observations, even while feeling a bit uncomfortable and reflecting on how dark the situation he’s joking about actually is. I’m about to start the second book as I type and I am slightly worried that, with the semi-resolution of the political conspiracy plotline in Sorlost, the rest of the series may potentially focus on Marith and his endless thirst for blood. If that does end up being the case I might lose interest, but I’m withholding judgement; the proof is in the pudding after all.
I’ve not really read any other reviews for it, but I imagine The Court of Broken Knives being a fairly divisive, Marmite sort of book, so it feels odd to fall in the middle. I can see why certain types of readers would love it and why certain others would hate it, and I experienced both. It’s a book heavy on theme and light on character, more literary than most fantasy fans have been led to expect of the genre. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you’d do well to adjust your expectations about plot and character before reading. It was an odd reading experience and I can’t say it was really enjoyable cos it’s so overbearingly depressing, but there’s enough about it to keep me interested for the moment.
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