Review: THE TOWER OF LIVING AND DYING (Empires of Dust #2) by Anna Smith Spark

I kind of anticipate this being a fairly short review, cos most of what I said in my review of The Court of Broken Knives also applies here, with a few bits to add. This is literally the bleakest series I’ve ever read. Ever in my life. Ever. It’s honestly kind of hard to take at times and I’m really glad I ended up listening to these books as audio cos there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have had the willpower to finish them if I had to concentrate on visually absorbing these words out of a paper page. I don’t mean the books aren’t well-written, they most definitely are, I just mean the style and the prose and the subject matter is so utterly, relentlessly bleak. I’d probs consider myself a hardened grimdark fan, but jeez, this was too much even for me at times. That said, I was quite hooked by the way THE TOWER OF LIVING AND DYING developed the story, in a way I don’t think I was by book one.

Read my reviews of previous books in this series:

The Tower of Living and Dying begins with Marith intent on the reconquest and restoration of Amrath’s former empire, starting with the conquest of his half brother, who’s laying claim the throne of the White Isles. Meanwhile Orhan Emmereth’s schemes in the city of Sorlost hit a few bumps in the road when rumours of his involvement in the attack on the emperor begin to circulate. And our good friend Tobias teams up with an escaped Landra Rilast to launch an assassination attempt on Marith before he can wreak any more destruction upon the world. Also so Landra can avenge herself for the massacre of her entire family at Marith’s hands, which is fair cop really. So from the get go the plot has a bit more direction, which is one of the things that kept me from gelling with book one I think; that first instalment felt a bit too much like a series of events with no driving through line, whereas here I felt like there was a plot. As an aside, I’ve been thinking about this a bit and why it was a contributing factor to my not 100% vibing with The Court of Broken Knives. I’ve not reached any firm conclusions yet, but I think it has a lot to do with how our expectations have been shaped about the fiction we consume, the structure it’s supposed to follow and how we respond when creators deviate from those standards. Not gonna dive into that rabbit hole here, but there’s lots to think about and I think the fact I was able to adjust my expectations a bit also allowed me enjoy book two more and appreciate some of the weird stuff Anna Smith Spark is doing with this series.

Tell you one thing I started to find very interesting here was Thalia’s relationship with Marith, which is honestly the last thing I thought I’d say after how annoying and one-dimensional I found their interactions in CoBK. On the surface it kind of feels like this is Marith’s story, but I’m starting to wonder how much these books are actually about Thalia and the expectations the reader has that she shouldn’t love Marith, that she’s somehow better than that and the onus we put on her to separate herself from him, expectations that we don’t necessarily have of the largely male lords and hangers-on that ride Marith’s coattails to war, pillage and destruction. I must admit to finding myself ‘disappointed’ in Thalia as she grew closer to Marith and slowly started to display more enthusiasm for his war of conquest, knowing full well the cost in life the people of Irlast would pay for her to be able to say she is their queen; disappointment I did not feel in the nobles who pledged themselves to Marith’s cause. I found the switch to Thalia’s first person perspective during her chapters initially quite jarring the first time I read CoBK but I’ve got to say I’m a firm convert now, if only for the chapter where we get Thalia’s direct address to the reader that she doesn’t have to justify herself to us in ways we don’t expect anyone else to, that she’s not the trapped damsel in distress we think she is, but that she’s made a conscious decision this is what she wants, even if that’s hard for the reader to accept. That hit hard man. It was set up so cleverly and gradually throughout the course of the book too and is probably my favourite thing Anna Smith Spark did with this series so far.

Before I wrote that paragraph I’d intended to say how I continued to find Marith uninteresting as a character, which I guess I still do (there’s a reason Joffrey Baratheon and Gregor Clegane aren’t viewpoint characters), but now I’ve worked through some stuff I think it’s necessary for him to be the way he is and for his arc to take the form it does if this is actually Thalia’s story, as I now think it is, and if Smith Spark’s intention is for the reader to interrogate how we’ve responded to watching the decisions she’s made. Fuck, I’m having a major epiphany here. I think this book is way better than I initially thought. But that’s why it’s important to adjust expectations going into this series if you’re going to give it a go; this isn’t your standard genre SFF with pew-pew laser guns and clish-clashing of swords (which is basically what I read all the time by the way, I’m not dissing it). No, I think if you’re gonna dive into this series then I think you need to be aware that it’s probs gonna be challenging; the prose is weird and the story itself can be quite hard to stick with at times, but there is some really interesting shit going on beneath the surface.

I don’t really edit these reviews cos I think it’s kind of interesting to see the thought process develop as I’m writing, so I do think it’s funny how at the start I was just like “yeahhh not much to add really, same old same old…words words words…OH WAIT, I THINK I GET THIS BOOK NOW!” This is actually why I started reviewing in the first place, to try and collect the nebulous clouds of thoughts I have about the books I read and work through them to form a coherent opinion, so it’s always quite satisfying when I can see that happen in real time.

Anyway, I don’t know if this is really what people are looking for in reviews; I’m sorry I didn’t delve much into setting, or character, or all that much into plot or whatever, which I think reviews are probably supposed to do, but I hope you got something out of it? In an attempt to make this a bit useful to you, the review reader, I’ve entirely changed my mind about whether I would recommend this series; I definitely would, with some pretty major qualifiers. First off, I’d stay well clear if you’re not in a great headspace cos this is an actively depressing book. As in, it properly weighed on me and made me feel pretty shitty at times. Second off, content warnings for all kind of gruesome shit happening to children (and adults) with relentless cruelty. Finally, if that’s stuff you feel you can read then I’ll just reiterate this ain’t a book you can just chew through for it’s fast-paced twists and turns and easy readability; it’s probs gonna be a challenging read and one whose themes you might not get straight away (I’m fairly confident there’s a lot of stuff I still don’t get about it). But if that sounds like something that would interest you, then I’d def recommend you try this series and see what opinion you form. I’ve just started the final book in the trilogy today and I’m ready to dive back in with a renewed vigour after writing this review!

image credit: by Svetlana Alyuk on

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