REVIEW: A Woman of the Sword by Anna Smith Spark

Last Updated on March 8, 2024

A book that beats you emotionally senseless, A Woman of the Sword is an intense experience delivered in the way only Anna Smith Spark delivers fiction. It’s grimdark at its finest: a small but intense point of view of a mother struggling with motherhood, with sacrificing the things she wants to do with her life to be a mother, of feeling like she is a horrible parent, of life with PTSD, of fighting men and women and they way people treat each other, all scaled against the endless cycle of mass warfare that is the human condition.

Cover for A Woman of the Sword by Anna Smith SparkIn A Woman of The Sword, Lidae—warrior, wife, mother—watches the remains her ex-soldier husband burn in the ocean. While she tries to understand and even realise her own grief, her young children, Ryn and Samei, don’t quite grasp what this means and continue to demand of her emotionally and physically. The village members try to help, but Lidae can’t hold herself together, and she struggles to be a mother amongst her own inner anger and fear and loss.

Then, one night, the soldiers come and burn her town. This starts an incredible, emotional ride of motherhood and soldiering that spans a decade of war and brutal inner turmoil and struggle as king after queen after king throw the land and their armies at each other time and again with Lidae and her boys in the middle of it.

A Woman of the Sword is both a grimdark military fantasy and a heavy character-focussed story. The military side of it is a backdrop to a story of broken family, of broken people, and what broke them. Smith Spark’s ability to paint beautiful and horrible scenes against which to tell this heart wrenching story—as she did in her Empires of Dust trilogy starting with The Court of Broken Knives—is on full display here. This book is a beautiful read.

The key theme that really hit home for me is the one of motherhood. Of feeling like you’re not very good at it, of wondering how you can be so good at one thing (soldiering, in Lidae’s case), face so many colossal challenges, yet not be able to connect with your son enough to know how to not make him cry like other mothers do. Not only am I not a parent, but I’m not a woman, and yet Smith Spark managed to make that theme reach right out of the second chapter and vice-grip my heart.

A Woman of the Sword also delves into themes of PTSD (as I understand it) and struggling mothers, and (I think), post partem depression. Again, I am not somebody who has these experiences, but Smith Spark hit me with them, hard.

A Woman of the Sword is written across two timelines, one with the boys young, and one with them as teenagers. Watching Lidae watch her sons make adult decisions, weighing them against her own when she was young and indestructible and ruthless is one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I definitely cannot help but feel that not being a parent myself means that I am incapable of plumbing the full emotional depths of this book. This book is an absolute MUST read for the parents in the dark / grimdark fantasy fan base.

Something Smith Spark does better than anything I can remember reading in recent memory, is really show how small the individual foot soldier is in the greater scheme of things. How unlikely it is that even the best soldiers will ever have more than a passing contact with a king or queen, dragon, or mighty hero. How an army is about the many, and how little it cares for the individual. Of how easily discarded and forgotten the individual is. If you’re after a book about how the farmhand becomes the general, this is not that book. The army and the battles are scenery (awesomely written and integral to the plot) to Lidae and her sons’ relationship, and to motherhood in the deepest darkest places.

A Woman of the Sword is brilliant grimdark fantasy. It hurts to read at times, is unputdownable at others, and I feel different people at different stages of their lives are going to take away different things. This is Anna Smith Spark at her heart-wrenching, mythic-feeling, storytelling best, and just completely unmissable.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.