They call her the Queen of Grimdark.
With just a single series and a handful of shorts under her belt, author Anna Smith Spark has made some shocking waves in the fantasy world. The first two books of her Empires of Dust trilogy, The Court of Broken Knives and The Tower of Living and Dying, are a horrifically satisfying one-two punch of soul-destroying violence that test the limits of commercial fiction. Twisted, grotesque, stomach-churning action fills every one of the nearly 1,000 pages of the first two movements of her symphony of madness, which charts the rise of Marith Altrersyr from disgraced prince to drug-addled brigand to a world-conquering tyrant.
Throughout it all, Spark destroys the notion that grimdark fantasy is necessarily a low-brow medium. Writing with a poet’s precision and master’s ear for story, she spins prose like the silk of the deadliest of spiders, weaving a horrifying trap in which she delights capturing you. How beautiful can your suffering be? In her capable hands, very beautiful indeed.
Stuck between being lulled in by the magic of her writing and the horror at what that writing describes, to read Empires of Dust is to let your highest ideals of artistic reverence do battle with the most base of your animal desires. Are you more in awe of the tapestry of words effortlessly weaves or repulsed by the violent depravity those words describe? When has murder and destruction even been this poetic?
Spark’s work revels in this dichotomy, very occasionally even breaking the narrative fourth wall to wryly admonish you for enjoying this tale of rot and bloodshed. As the narrative grows more horrific and bloody, she pushes you along ever so subtly, knowing that if you’ve made it this far then you can’t wait to turn the page, even if turning the page forces you deeper into a morass of gnarled despair. And it will. It always does.
And so, it makes perfect sense that the final entry in her lauded trilogy, THE HOUSE OF SACRIFICE, would be her most brutal and sickening effort yet. Spark brings this series to a bold and stunning conclusion, not merely sticking the landing but also cracking the earth beneath her when she does. It is a wonderfully twisted conclusion to a saga that already pushes beyond the boundaries which normally constrain popular fiction.
Set four years after the events of The Tower of Living and Dying, THE HOUSE OF SACRIFICE finds Marith about midway through his goal of conquering the known earth. His is a violent, cruel conquest undertaken for no reason other than he can. If it wasn’t him it’d be someone else, he reasons. So why shouldn’t it be him?
His single-minded pursuit for conquest leaves no room for mercy, with cities slaughtered on little more than a whim and a whisper. As ever, Spark delights at thrusting us close to the action. You can almost smell the blood in the air, the burning of flesh. The cries of horror and anguish at his tyrannical march leap off the page, deafening you with the visceral terror of Marith’s casual cruelty. The farther he gets, the more rotten his soul becomes. How long can he last, with every day twisting him farther from the realm of humanity?
Spark works at levels higher than the crassness of her work suggests. For all the thrilling bloodshed, twisted violence, and rotten madness displayed in THE HOUSE OF SACRIFICE—in the whole of Empires of Dust—the author is toying with the philosophical and, indeed, the moral. This is a series about a tyrant’s rise and Spark never deigns to shy away from showing us what that looks like.
Every step in Marith’s rise to power is met with cheers meant to horrify. Every moment of glory he achieves is held up to you, the reader, as a blood-stained mirror reflecting the darkest depths of the human soul. “Why do you cheer,” Spark seems to ask. “What is it about this that appeals to you?” A student of history, Spark understands how easily a population can fall under the thrall of a madman. The path leading from freedom to tyranny is short and paved in bone and flesh. It’s as true in Spark’s world as it is in our own, and the result is a picture of a world that is less unlike our own than any of us would ever care to admit.
THE HOUSE OF SACRIFICE brings the disparate threads of Spark’s sprawling narrative together along a labyrinthine path awash in the viscera of the innocent. Each of her main characters is set upon their own road and roads that have run parallel up to this point begin to intersect. As unpredictable as ever, Spark uses this as an opportunity to go as dark as she ever has, showing us the grim and brutal effects of a world into which we all too eagerly lost ourselves.
With the concluding novel of her trilogy, Spark has proven what has long been suspected. Empires of Dust is a masterwork of dark fantasy that shatters the foundations of the genre and begs for the bar to be raised. In turns mythic and raw, this is a work that demands to be taken seriously not just as grimdark fantasy but as true literature. With its captivating prose, vivid depictions of madness and tyranny, and enthralling narrative, Spark has almost single-handedly elevated the form and truly solidified her claim to the title Queen of Grimdark.
Long may she reign.