Every so often on social media, or on somebody’s blog, some comment somewhere, someone will post a question asking what qualifies a book as grimdark. “What is grimdark?” the person will say. “What are the key five books that will tell me everything I need to know about this weird subgenre?” I hear it in podcasts, see it on author’s blogs. People trying to define a subgenre that can easily (in my opinion) apply to any number of genres and styles. (Hell, Crime and Punishment is pretty grimdark.)
As if everything written can be easily sorted into neat little categories where they remain, safe from the other categories, with huge swaths of barren field between them all. Is it sci-fi or fantasy? Do we call it grimdark because it’s bloody and violent, or because it has excessive rape and needless murder? Because it’s bleak? Because the characters have given up all hope of a productive, happy life?
Or maybe we call books grimdark because they’re poorly written, because the prose is amateur and one dimensional.
Either way, like all genres and subgenres, the boundaries are hazy. Fuzzy. Yes, grimdark stories tend to have unlikable characters who do horrible deeds. Sometimes, the characters aren’t safe, and can be killed off even though their name would be in the title credits. Grimdark stories have anti-heroes who tend to have no moral compass. Maybe. Joe Abercrombie is considered to be grimdark, and I like almost all of his characters, and a lot of them do very noble, heroic things.
Good art, whether it be writing, music, painting, or creating a video game, just can’t be lumped into piles. They move. They’re fluid.
Art is generally always better when it blends its styles. That’s how you get new styles, new concepts. That is precisely how you get originality. A sci-fi/murder mystery set in space on some asteroid belt. A high fantasy/political drama where kingdoms would rather fight among themselves then deal with the threat of a never ending winter.
I’ve heard a lot of people say this book, The Court of Broken Knives, is the grimmest of the grim. The darkest, most horrible book they ever read. It’s too violent, no likeable characters, no hope or light in this world to give it’s characters a reason to continue slogging on. And, yes, I guess all that is true… mostly. But not entirely.
I’ve gotten a little off topic, so let me just say this and get it out of the way. The Court of Broken Knives is a terrific book. Wonderfully written. Anna Smith Spark has a way with words that is so invigorating and fresh. If you’re not prepared, if you’re not open to the way she writes, it might drive you nuts for the first bit. But then it clicks. The personality of the writer coming through. The narrator having the smallest little bit of influence. The short and brutal sentence fragments. (Death Death! Death!) The writing feels more like poetry, and it’s bloody beautiful.
The tale begins around a young man named Marith. I have a bit of a complaint with the character’s introduction, and it’s the same complaint I have with Jorg from Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns. It is nearly impossible to figure out anything physical about the characters at first. Are they children or adults? Big? Strong, tall, weak? Marith starts out feeling like the runt in a mercenary company, a sickly youth with no experience, but you soon find out otherwise. Like, Otherwise with a capital O.
Marith and the mercenaries are travelling to a city called Sorlost. This city, heart of the Yellow Empire, is on the verge of being torn apart from within, with a few different factions trying to take control. One of these factions is led by Orhan, who by far was my favourite character. Truly complex, married to a caring wife but he has a man on the side whom he truly loves. There is a bit of love story there, as Orhan has to navigate his emotions while attempting to stage a coup and take control of the throne.
And finally, the city is also home to Thalia, the High Priestess, who gets caught up in the plots of Orhan and the mercenaries come to cause trouble. Through Thalia we see a lot of the religious structure to the world, the faith of the Yellow Empire, and how the mantle of high priestess passes down from generation to generation.
In most other fantasy books, this would be a tale of the mercenaries coming and slowly working their way through the city until they either helped Orhan take the throne or stop him from doing so. But this isn’t any regular fantasy tale.
Needless to say, this story surprised me, and the writing absolutely astounded me. Marith isn’t likeable, and Thalia isn’t much better. Orhan has the most compassion, but his motives are completely selfish, and his story a little bit separate from the others. The only other character I really tried to like was Tobias, the gruff and grim veteran commander of the mercenaries. I like fantasy soldiers, taciturn and ruthlessly efficient. Whiskeyjack and Croaker. Major Collem West and Ned Stark. Ser Barristan Selmy. At first I wanted Tobias to be like them, my favourites, but quickly realized he isn’t. Not at all.
The story takes some unexpected turns, characters evolve and reveal themselves as the story unfolds, and Marith’s true motivations appear, dragged out into the open despite all his attempts at keeping them hidden away. The ending, and the main plot of the book, seems to come up out of nowhere, but then you realize the threads have been falling into place the entire time. And all the while, Anna Smith Spark uses her superb writing skills to paint a scene of tragedy and loss, love and heartache, betrayal and soulless murder.
To be fair, there is a lot of death and outright murder here. There isn’t much light. But there is love. These characters haven’t given up. Most of them aren’t motivated by greed alone, but by deeper, vengeful passions. It’s definitely still grimdark, but maybe, just maybe, we should be a less concerned with definitions of art, and just let creativity shine.
Anna Smith Spark’s next book, The Tower of Living and Dying, will be out shortly (August 2018 I think) which I am eagerly awaiting.
Or check out Anna Smith Spark’s website here: courtofbrokenknives.org