This is the debut novel of Anna Smith Spark, known by many as the Queen of Grimdark. It’s a well-deserved title, with her work being dark and grim enough to rival Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie. Yet Smith Spark has chosen to write in a very distinctive style that sets her apart from others. When I met her at a signing at Nine Worlds, someone was asking her if they would enjoy her novel. She suggested they open the book, read the first chapter and if they like it, then they’ll probably like the rest of the book.
This certainly seems to be good advice. In the opening chapter, we find ourselves on a battlefield. The prose is very disjointed, the sentences abrupt in a manner which reflects the chaos of battle beautifully; the style as much as the prose draws you in. But then you get to chapter two and the same style continues, albeit it a little lighter. What worked astoundingly well in the first chapter now feels a little uncomfortable. There are no long, smooth sections of narrative for a reader to relax into: there are going to be people who love that and people who hate it. For those on the borderline, I would recommend sticking with the book for a couple of chapters because once you start learning about the characters, you’re really going to want to stick with them.
Thankfully, Smith Spark’s style falls short of affecting the speech of the characters: it’s one thing to view a world through disjointed prose, quite another to hear characters talking in such a stylistic way. She still employs the same style when relating a character’s thoughts but since this is grimdark, there are plenty of battles and moments of terror when this staccato style enhances rather than detracts from the narrative. After all, which of us hasn’t experienced the non sequitur of one completely bizarre thought arriving in our heads at an inappropriate time?
This is illustrated well by one of my favourite scenes in chapter two where Tobias the mercenary is dreaming of reaching his destination and having steak, or something even better, when they get attacked by a dragon. Many authors have described the smell of roasting human flesh, but it’s darkly humorous that Tobias smells it and thinks, “Better than steak”. Amid a scene of men screaming, flesh burning and armour melting, those three words are perfectly deployed.
Throughout the novel, Smith Spark shows she has an eye for a turn of phrase. Some of these work brilliantly. She describes “flowers that smell of human skin”, which is something you might expect from Lewis Carroll if he’d ever written grimdark. I actually found myself pausing, trying to imagine these flowers and shuddering, before I read on.
At one point, she describes a door. We hear first about how it is closed, it is tall but narrow, moves easily on its pivots, and is made of black wood. But walking into it is like entering a great rat-trap, the knots in the wood are like watching eyes and three unexplained claw marks run down the door at the height of a man’s head. The door itself is turned into a thing of menace.
Yet some of her descriptions I found jarring. Her description of the dragon as a “roaring hot burning killing demon death thing” left me frowning. A few pages later, we also have the word “bloody” six times and “blood” two times on the same page. I found that more irritating than evocative and some weird descriptions, like “clotted knots like milk curds” were strange without being helpful and lacked the charm of some of her other inspired similes.
Whatever you think of her style, you can’t fault Smith Spark on her world or her characters. What stood out for me was all the peculiar little customs and superstitions, such as there being two major annual celebrations, Years Heart and Years Renewal, and the fact that twilight is considered to be a dangerous time, so that there is a widespread custom of falling silent as twilight falls. Through the characters’ interactions with each other, as well as little asides, Smith Spark builds up a fascinating world.
Into this world she’s placed some fantastic characters. There’s Tobias, the mercenary with a dubious moral code, but a code nonetheless. There is Marith, the only one of the main protagonists to be mentioned in the synopsis on the back of the book. The first part of the book raises the question of just who he is, and when the big revelation finally comes, the novel has presented enough other questions to keep you reading. Orhan is our character in the city and what he experiences provide a stark contrast to what the other three are going through, adding to the multi-layered world that Smith Spark has created. Finally there’s Thalia, a high priestess on the run. I felt Thalia had hidden depths that weren’t fully exploited in the first book, and I look forward to seeing her develop as a character in the next book.
The first half of the novel is a bit like a heist movie: we witness a lot of planning and manoeuvring by the characters, and the sense of expectation builds as to how this will all play out. I was surprised and immensely pleased when it didn’t go the way I thought it would and watching the fallout was as entertaining as the build up had been. There are some interesting observations about the source and effect of power, mostly centred around the character of Marith. I enjoyed his revelation that the powerful are actually powerless because they are so removed from action and real experiences that everything seems to be made of shadows.
Reading this novel put me in mind of the first time I read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, which contains very little punctuation. It’s challenging and not for everyone, but for those who follow it through to the end, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself looking forward to book two.
To some, this book will be new and refreshing, a welcome voice in the grimdark community. For others, it will merely be unreadable. Returning to Smith Spark’s use of steak to visceral effect: if you like your steak thick, bloody and jagged round the edges, then you’ll find this novel suits your tastes exactly.