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A Sword of Bronze and Ashes cover

A Sword of Bronze and Ashes by Anna Smith Spark

(Flame Tree Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Steven French

This is one of those rare novels in which style and content are skilfully brought together in a way that leaves the reader (or at least, this reader) enthralled by both the story itself and the manner of its execution. It begins with Kanda, a mother and farmer’s wife who, one summer’s morning, while walking down to the water meadow to call the cows in for milking, spots a body floating down the river. Realising immediately what that means, she desperately tries to save her family from the terror that she knows is coming, revealing, as she does so, that in another life she was none other than Ikandera Thygethyn, the greatest of the Six Swords of the Hall of Roven. Together these golden and glorious knights would ride out, repeatedly, from that place of peace and beauty and light, to challenge the darkness, to fight the good fight, and to slaughter their enemies, again and again and again. This is not just a tale about a mighty warrior, however, taking up her sword one last time to protect those she loves. It’s also about facing up to the past, it’s about the hope for redemption and whether that hope can ever be truly fulfilled. It’s about the lies that parents have to tell their children to protect them and about how, inevitably, those lies will twist and strain and maybe even break the bonds between family members. And above all it’s about the contrast between the mythic and the mundane and about which of the two, in truth, offers the greater challenges and the richer prizes to be gained.

And if all that sounds too weighty and portentous, bear in mind that the author is the Queen of Grimdark! So, there are also lashings of carnage and bloody sacrifice and real horror too, as when Kenda and her family flee down the droveway at night and encounter the ‘hodden’, a monstrous creature made out of rotten wood with a horse’s skull for a head and a terrifying gobbling neigh (perhaps derived from the Kentish ‘hooden’, a wooden hobbyhorse carried on a pole by someone hidden under a sackcloth). Counterbalancing such genuinely chilling passages are the fight-scenes, which are savage and messy and, just as genuinely, thrilling.

Threading throughout this narrative is the stark contrast between the life of Kanda, who is ‘heavy and sagging in the thighs and belly’, having given birth to three girls and who ‘wets herself when she laughs, farts in her sleep’ and who is very fond of beer and terrible at baking and that of Ikandera Thygethyn (which, it turns out, is also not her original name), shaped by the Lord of Roven out of ‘good sown earth and wildfire and red autumn berries’ and first of the Six. The central question of the book, one that Calian, the fiercest of her daughters, asks again and again, is how did the one become the other? The answer is terrible and disturbing and goes to the heart of all ‘fallen’ mythologies, as vices come to outweigh virtues and pettiness morphs into anger and hate and destructiveness.

In keeping with such themes, the writing is lyrical and frequently gorgeous, at times leaning into the prose-poetic but, as with the content, that richness is leavened by lucidity and also outright bluntness. Smith Spark’s brilliance as a storyteller is matched by her mastery of the form and the result is a book to be savoured and remembered and surely, nominated for every award going. It’s also Book One in a series with the over-arching title The Making of This World Ruined and although this particular tale is brought to a satisfying conclusion, Kanda’s final words, roared to the sky, ramp up the anticipation for Book Two.

Review from BSFA Review 22 - Download your copy here.


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