Review: The Tower of Living and Dying

5 min read

by Alex Khlopenko

The Empires of Dust series, including The Court of Broken Knives and The Tower of Living and Dying, is a tragic poem of existential nihilism.

Early on in the first book, somewhere in the Eternal, Golden, City of Sorlost, two young men, dressed in all white, fight to the death to give their lives some meaning and provide cheap thrills to the spectators. In that scene, Anna Smith Spark establishes and reinforces the position that, in the world of Irlast, life has no intrinsic value whatsoever. Every character in the books faces this undeniable truth sooner or later and through their struggle, they come up with the entire spectrum of answers to it.

The first book was all about getting to know who Marith, his drug abuse and omnipercipient addiction to death. He finds out that humans are nothing more than a bag of meat and bones, and nothing else. And during the massacre he and his mercenary colleagues were paid to perform, he finds the answer to this struggle. If a man’s life has no value and is so easily taken – why not try to kill them all? From there Marith begins his descent into a hatha[1]-fueled, mortality denying, schizophrenia[2] and becomes an apologist of himself. He presents vengeance, restoring his ancestor’s legacy, world conquest, and love to Thalia as the reasons to continue killing people.

Thalia, the high priestess of Tanis, the god of life and death in the city of Sorlost, joins Marith in his escape from the city and becomes the main character of The Tower of Living and Dying. As a high priestess, it was her job to sacrifice people in her temple to keep the living alive and allow the dead to die – her entire existence, her role in life, and the public perception of her were all based on the fact that, once again, a human’s life is a thing, a medium of exchange. She was locked in a golden cage of her own religion.  Throughout her journeys, with Marith she finds herself a prisoner once more. Of Marith’s love. Of the fact that life around here is even less than a thing. Thalia finds her answer in accepting this nature of things, in accepting the Camus’ “absurd”. And enjoying it. Anna Smith Spark masterfully concludes Thalia’s arc so far by showing this acceptance and that she needs not to justify herself – to any of the books’ characters, or us, the readers.

Two other options are presented through the rest of the wonderful cast of characters – Tobias, the lieutenant in the mercenary company Marith joined, and Landra – a noblewoman whose family Marith murdered.

Tobias accepted the lack of life’s value long ago – he is a mercenary after all. But seeing what Marith is capable of, the incomprehensible destruction that he can bring to this world, Tobias loses any faith in anything he believed before. That’s why Tobias chooses to make a leap of faith[3]. And this presents the philosophical complexity of his character - in his quest to kill Marith and save the world he attempts to give his otherwise meaningless life a Kierkegaardian higher goal, while simultaneously accepting suicide as a solution.

Landra loses her family, her ancestral home, and her appearance to Marith’s wrath. She is deprived of anything that made her herself. She faces the same dilemma as the rest of the cast, too. Landra has an option to accept the “absurd” and join Ru. Ru presents the classic Sysiphian myth – she accepted her mundane life, a mermaid doomed to land by her husband, yet she rejects any chance of going back to how things were before. Landra is tempted to accept Ru’s ways, and yet she chooses the more “noble” goal of saving the world. So, just like Tobias, she chooses to kill the King Ruin, King Death – Marith.

The last character who faces this same conflict is Orhan, one of the nobles of the city of Sorlost. His way of denying the lack of life’s value is achieving immortality through the ruling. He aspires to do anything to save his city, knowing that he and other people may pay the price for the power he reaches for and the change he dreams to bring.

All of Anna Smith Spark’s characters are truly tragic in their nature – their own flaws and virtues are what leads them to their inevitable demise.

Anna Smith Spark beautifully crafted the unmerciful, grimdark world, where there is no hope and no redemption. She wrapped the world of Irlast and the stories of Marith, Thalia, Orhan, and Tobias in the kind of poetic and muscular prose more often found in literary fiction, throwing back to the best work of Cormac McCarthy and Ursula K. Le Guin. Not many fantasy authors and publishers have the courage to have three sentence-long chapters. Smith Spark uses the medium to almost its full potential – seeing some kind of Mark Z. Danielewski kind of fuckery happening in the next book would be expected and welcome.

In The Tower of Living and Dying, battle descriptions not only reinforce the underlying theme of lack value of life but leave you with a claustrophobic feeling of being in the middle of a cavalry-on-cavalry charge. The reader is presented with a carnival of carnage – blood, sacrifice, demons, dragons, thousands of men and women, all dancing the horrifying danse macabre.

In addition to all of the above, the scenes of Ru and Landra are what won over me. The feeling of the chance for peace and rest that those chapters represent and the ultimate rejection of this option were heartbreaking and makes you want to scream at the book.

The Tower of Living and Dying pays off on all the promises of the Court of Broken Knives and more. On the surface, it is a fast-paced grimdark fantasy, but under it – an existential Greek tragedy, that leaves you both broken and more alive than before.

Enjoyable, challenging, and poetic. The Tower of Living and Dying is a must-read of the new wave of modern fantasy.

[1] Irlast sort of cocaine that makes you scratch your eyes out

[2] Not unlike the one described by Ernest Becker in “The Denial of Death”

[3] Closely resembling the “leap” as described by Soren Kierkegaard in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments”

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