I gotta be honest, I doubt that I can be entirely impartial when reviewing the book of one of my favourite authors, a huge friend of my magazine, and more so since I published one of her short stories. I promise to be honest about how I feel about it and provide whatever analysis I can to show the immense depth and breadth a book about endless total war and death, death, death can provide.
To analyze what Anna Smith Spark has done to finish off her trilogy I’d divide my point into two major aspects: 1) The ghosts that haunt Marith Altresyr, 2) How people learn to live with their horrible choices.
Like the best works of fiction, the philosophical, social and political arguments are found not in the preachy passages and or twitter fistfights in the toxic communities, but in the intricately woven and carefully crafted character whose inherent and irredeemable flaws, just like in Greek tragedies, lead to their ultimate demise. And what a demise, I should say.
Firstly, Smith Spark takes the great man theory as the premise, subverts it for two books, and then turns it up to eleven. Marith’s war that started back in the first book is drowning in blood. There is no end to it since it had no ultimate goal since it was started as an escape from two ghosts – that of Marith’s forefather Amrath, who conquered the world and in whose shadow his whole family lived for centuries, and the ghost of his dead friend. They haunted Marith, drove his every step, and have grown uncontrollably until they consumed everything. The same works for the whole “revolution” of his – it is haunted by the living dead ghost of Amrath’s conquest. The only feasible answer a mentally-ill, hatha-addicted megalomaniac can find for an ill-fated revolution – never let it end.
You can interpret it as the commentary on the modern western foreign policies, the ideological vicious cycle that intoxicates our daily lives without providing the slightest hint of an answer. They will all be true. And part of the magic of this book can be attributed to the fact that the book recognizes and addresses its multifaceted nature and the multiple possible interpretations. But the possible answer to the political turmoil of Smith Sparks fantasy world and to our own real-life can be found in the fact that Marith’s revolution, after the rollercoaster of betrayals, intrigues, dramatic and gory battles, went back to the city where it started. It had only one aim – to show that whatever is believed to be eternal, unshakable, and undoubted can be melted down into nothingness through collective effort and willpower.
The second aspect worth mentioning is the dichotomy between coercing people into doing horrible things and how they justify it to themselves. If The Court of Broken Knives was all about the rise to power of a sick, sick person, The Tower of Living and Dying was a reflection on the people around him enabling, encouraging him, but also the desensitizing nature of violence, and the absolute, unapologetic devaluation of life, now finally House of Sacrifice is all about how people justify their actions and choices to themselves. There, in their minds, is the fiercest and bloodiest battles, the place where they are either completely honest or outright lying about why they do what they do.
And it is nowhere more evident than in Thalia’s fourth-wall-breaking, chapter-long monologue – addressed to us, my dear readers, where she declines to apologize for the choices she made and the role in their world she took for herself. Thalia declines to adhere to our hypocritical, bystander morality and judgement. She knows that she is a monster who created an even bigger monster that is Marith. She accepts it. That is one of the shining moments of this book and this year in fantasy literature. Anna Smith Spark takes a Hobbesian stance on humanity – we all would make the same choices as Thalia if we were in her shoes.
The rest of the cast takes another road – they are going out of their way to prove that they wouldn’t make the same choice as Thalia or at least to find a reasonable, believable justification for their actions.
Tobias decides to follow the Army of Marith/Amrath and live off the spoils of war while telling yourself that you did all you can to stop him and since you failed, you might as well join him and hide your pain behind sarcastic remarks and old soldier’s witty observations. He finds the truth and accepts himself in succumbing to the endless cycle of violence since it is the only way to find any meaning in these times.
Landra, unlike Tobias and impoverished Orhan, enacts her revenge, she murders Marith’s associates and burns down the cities that betrayed her to the ground. Only to learn the futility of her endeavor. Instead, she watches the common people not give two shits about a distant king/emperor/whatever-Marith-calls-himself-today who may as well be a mirage instead of a real person and rebuild their lives, their cities. If that doesn’t give the reader hope that we can get through everything, I’m not sure there is hope at all.
On the technical side of things, should I once again mention Anna Smith Spark’s prose? I doubt that if you’ve got this far in the trilogy, you’re oblivious to the fact that she is one of, if not the best voice in the genre and maybe the entirety of English-language literature. She is maybe the lone voice standing up to the abomination that is the Sanderson-Jordan style of fantasy prose. Every minute you spend with the House of Sacrifice and its world rewards you significantly more than it asks of you. Her lyricism, the rhythm, and intensity of writing may prove too much for some readers and it’s okay. But once you get a taste of this literary hatha you just don’t want it to ever end. She doesn’t need to cement her place in the genre, it is rightfully hers.
House of Sacrifice and the entire Empires of Dust trilogy signify a pleasant and continued shift in fantasy – the scope and interest of the authors moved from the grand fates of the people in power to those of the common people, who are coerced into the wars of the rich and powerful and what it does to them. It is still grim, it is still dark, but Anna Smith Spark does something different. I occasionally bash some authors and the whole SFF in my reviews for neglecting the dialectical nature of literature, e.g. only doing the thesis without the antithesis, or doing the thesis and antithesis without the resulting synthesis. I feel robbed when finishing a book like that. Not here. House of Sacrifice provides all the necessary synthesis, the answers, or at least imagines the trajectory of where we could find them.
I know that I will possibly revisit the books in a couple of years to reflect on them as a whole and on certain separate parts, probably write an essay or two. It’s worth the time.
Unlike the statement in Publisher’s Weekly, I don’t believe that this trilogy could end only one way. There was a million ways to end it, but the master heartbreaker-in-chief Anna Smith Spark chose the most graciously satisfying one.