VIDEO Anna Smith Spark: Where to Start Reading

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Last Updated on July 15, 2024

Rightfully hailed as the queen of grimdark, Anna Smith Spark is the author of the Empires of Dust trilogy, which began in spectacular fashion with The Court of Broken Knives and continued with The Tower of Living and Dying and The House of Sacrifice. Anna published two new novels last year: the standalone grimdark fantasy, A Woman of the Sword, and the epic folk horror fantasy, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes. Her latest work is In the Shadow of their Dying, a grimdark novella coauthored with Michael R. Fletcher.

Anna Smith Spark’s writing has been described as “a masterwork” by Nightmarish Conjurings, “an experience like no other” by Grimdark Magazine, and “howls like early Moorcock, converses like the best of Le Guin” by The Daily Mail. She’s aspie, dyslexic, and dyspraxic; a former English teacher, petty bureaucrat, and fetish model with a BA in Classics, an MA in history, and a PhD in English Literature.

Those new to Anna Smith Spark often ask the best place to start reading her work. While there is no right or wrong answer to this question, in this article I offer my personal recommended reading order for Anna Smith Spark’s canon of literature.

1. In the Shadow of their Dying

In my opinion, the best place to dip your toes in the murky water of Anna Smith Spark’s writing is In the Shadow of their Dying, the grimdark fantasy novella coauthored with Michael R. Fletcher.

In the Shadow of their DyingTash is the third-best assassin in a city under siege, within a week of being conquered by an invading army. Although there is not much demand for assassins in the midst of all-out war, Tash is hired by a mercenary leader, Pitt, to end the siege by killing their own king and fleeing the city toward the safety of the south.

But Tash encounters an unexpected problem when he crosses paths with a demon, Iananr the Bound One, occupying a woman’s body. Iananr thrives on blood and destruction and has sworn to defend the king in order to maximize bloodshed. But what Iananr really desires is freedom from her bondage.

Michael R. Fletcher and Anna Smith Spark’s unique voices both shine in alternating point-of-view chapters. Fletcher holds nothing back with his fierce prose and incisive humor. Anna Smith Spark shines with the voice she has given to Iananr. Her writing is so darkly poetic, with a rhythmic cadence that I couldn’t help but read aloud.

In the Shadow of their Dying is a masterclass in grimdark fantasy from two of the most distinguished authors in the genre. This is an expertly crafted novella, featuring some of the most vibrant writing and character work from both Michael R. Fletcher and Anna Smith Spark. In the Shadow of their Dying is a must-read for grimdark fans everywhere.

Read my complete review over on our partner site Beforewegoblog, here.

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2. A Woman of the Sword

After completing In their Time of Dying, I recommend following up with A Woman of the Sword, a heart-wrenching standalone grimdark fantasy that presents a brutally honest depiction of depression and the struggles of motherhood.

A Woman of the SwordLidae is a soldier in a male-dominated world engulfed in civil war. She is also a widowed mother of two boys, Ryn and Samei, who are too young to understand the permanence of death. When their village is burned to the ground by enemy soldiers, Lidae finds that protecting her children from violence requires a ferocity of her own.

For Lidae, the physical and emotional tolls of the soldiering life are compounded by the expectations placed on a young mother. Anna Smith Spark incisively highlights the sexism faced by mothers who choose to pursue a career or their own individual passion:

A Woman of the Sword presents a devastatingly authentic portrait of depression, including both the inner anguish and its impact on loved ones. Lidae never feels that she is good enough and, despite her best efforts, cannot feel the joy of motherhood as her mental state spirals downward into overwhelming anguish. Her grief and traumatic experiences leave open wounds that never seem to heal.

A Woman of the Sword is a tragic masterpiece. Anna Smith Spark writes with fierce intensity and deep sincerity. Her well-honed, fragmented writing style perfectly captures Lidae’s shattered emotional state, reflecting more broadly the struggles of parenting and especially of motherhood.

Read our complete review here.

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3. The Court of Broken Knives

Anna Smith Spark’s debut novel, The Court of Broken Knives, established her as the queen of grimdark, and for good reason. This is grimdark fantasy of the highest caliber, with four complex lead characters in a bleak and cruel world.

The Court of Broken KnivesTobias is a grizzled mercenary fighter leading his crew across the desert toward the legendary city of Sorlost, capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Marith is a charismatic but dangerous new recruit in Tobias’s company, with plenty of secrets in his troubled past. Meanwhile in Sorlost, the nobleman Orhan is scheming to overthrow the Emperor and install himself as ruler, and the high priestess Thalia seeks escape from her life of isolation.

Anna Smith Spark’s sparse but elegant writing style is the perfect vehicle for delivering this grimdark tale, with many darkly poetic moments throughout. The brutal, indiscriminate killing of ordinary soldiers is repugnant, yet some characters find a sick beauty in all the slaughter. Smith Spark doesn’t hold back with her descriptions of the carnage and the extreme emotions that bounce between horror and sick delight. The rhythm and tonality of her prose is always the perfect match for each of the scenes in the novel.

Anna Smith Spark finds beauty in decay through her lyrical writing: The Court of Broken Knives is simultaneously brutal and exquisite, absolutely a must-read for grimdark fans and anyone who appreciates complex, character-driven fantasy.

Read our complete review here.

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4. The Tower of Living and Dying

Anna Smith Spark invented the subgenre of literary grimdark fantasy with the publication of her debut novel, The Court of Broken Knives, and takes her writing to the next level with its sequel, The Tower of Living and Dying, the second volume of the Empires of Dust trilogy.

The Tower of Living and DyingThe Tower of Living and Dying is a masterpiece in gray morality as the charismatic Marith reveals details of his troubled past and pursues victory at all costs. Marith even terrifies himself as he discovers the evil within and awakens to his own tremendous powers.

While Marith was the undisputed star of The Court of Broken Knives, Thalia steals the spotlight in The Tower of Living and Dying. The high priestess of Sorlost, chosen by God, flees her life of isolation to escape with Marith, wedding Marith while whetting her thirst for freedom.

Thalia is fully aware of the intrinsic dangers posed by Marith and of her own unique position to stop him. But her attraction to Marith proves too powerful to resist and is also intertwined with the lure of power.

Thalia’s internal struggles are set against the backdrop of growing war and changing allegiances in The Tower of Living and Dying. Anna Smith Spark never shies away from showing the brutal realities of war and its impact on personal lives.

Let’s face it, though, the raison d’être for reading The Tower of Living and Dying is to immerse yourself in Anna Smith Spark’s lyrical prose. No one writes like Anna Smith Spark. Her writing burns with emotional intensity, finding poetry in a world of violence and decay.

Anna Smith Spark elevates emotional wreckage to an art form in The Tower of Living and Dying, making it another must-read for grimdark fans.

Read our complete review here.

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5. The House of Sacrifice

Anna Smith Spark’s Empires of Dust trilogy comes to its inevitable Shakespearean conclusion with The House of Sacrifice, a finale that reaffirms Marith as one of the greatest protagonists in grimdark fantasy.

The House of Sacrifice

Marith proves himself to be a ruinous king with a god complex, overrunning the continent with a seemingly undefeatable army. Marith sets his sights on the unconquerable city of Sorlost, the decaying capital of what had once been the greatest empire in the world, a conquest that had eluded even his notorious ancestor. At the same time, the greatest threat to Marith may come from within, as his unprecedented power is accompanied by a steady descent into madness.

The House of Sacrifice pivots on the tumultuous relationship between Marith and his wife, Thalia. Their relationship alternates between affection and a potentially murderous hatred, with intermittent flames of passion eclipsed by their more steadfast lust for power and glory.

Throughout The House of Sacrifice, Marith and Thalia leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake. As always, Anna Smith Spark is unflinching in her descriptions of gore and suffering. While Marith strives to maintain sanity, Thalia seeks to justify her choices that have led to so much slaughter.

Altogether, the Empires of Dust trilogy is a towering literary achievement and one of the finest works of grimdark fantasy. Anna Smith Spark’s inimitable prose elevates the genre to soaring new artistic heights. The House of Sacrifice is an uncompromising grimdark experience and literature of the highest caliber.

Read our complete review here.

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6. A Sword of Bronze and Ashes

The most challenging (and also the most rewarding) book in Anna Smith Spark’s canon of literature is A Sword of Bronze and Ashes, a lyrical dark fantasy that blends folk horror with the oral traditions of Welsh mythology. A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is a timeless epic dedicated to the universal trials of motherhood and the power of familial bonds.

A Sword of Bronze and AshesNow a mother with a loving husband (Dellet) and three daughters (Calian, Morna, and Sal), Kanda was once the bravest and strongest warrior of the legendary Six Swords of Roven. Kanda’s family knows nothing of her bloody past spent defending the realm against an unspeakable evil. But as the novel opens, her peaceful agrarian life is threatened by the return of this ancient wickedness.

Shifting fluidly between first- and third-person narration, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes perfectly evokes the style of early folk tales recorded from oral tradition. The novel’s structure is particularly reminiscent of The Mabinogion, the earliest recorded prose stories from Wales, compiled in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

As in The Mabinogion, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is permeated with natural mysticism. From the pastoral beauty of its opening chapter through its terrifying scenes of violence, Anna Smith Spark captures both the serenity and brutality of the natural world. Ultimately, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is about appreciating the simple virtues of a peaceful family life in what is often a very dark world.

Anna Smith Spark weaves layers of complexity into her characterization and worldbuilding, enhancing the immersive experience for the reader and providing opportunities to discover more details upon subsequent reads. Although sometimes disorienting with its blurred line between life and death, everything becomes clear by the end of the novel, culminating with a mic drop King of Thorns-style ending that left me with mouth agape, shouting to my family about what a brilliant novel I had just read.

A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is a triumph in every respect. As always, Anna Smith Spark writes with lyrical beauty and frank brutality. Her latest novel is a technical tour de force, giving a faithful representation of early dark mystical fantasy passed down through oral tradition. But more importantly, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is an emotional masterpiece, crushing me as only Anna Smith Spark can.

Read our complete review here.

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7. Short Stories

Anna Smith Spark is also a prolific author of short stories. My favorite is “A Knight was Once Sent on a Quest by her Master,” which is published in Unbound II, Shawn Speakman’s collection of seventeen all-original short stories from leading authors across speculative fiction.

With “A Knight was Once Sent on a Quest by her Master,” Anna Smith Spark has crafted a touching fantasy about a knight, Erenan, with a physical disability that limits the use of her legs. I especially appreciated the loving relationship between Erenan and her horse: as she mounts the horse, they come together to make one unified being. Anna Smith Spark writes with a melancholic beauty and ends on a hopeful note that left me craving more.

Read our complete review of the Unbound II anthology here.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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