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Surrealistic Planet

Review: A Sword of Bronze and Ashes by Anna Smith Spark

A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is the latest novel from the pen of Anna Smith Spark. Its cover, courtesy of Flame Tree Press defines the book perfectly. It is ‘lyrical, poetic folk horror’.

Labelled the Queen of Grimdark for good reason, this story is dark fantasy at its best. It is bloody and filled with graphic violence. Battles galore. The author shows her amazing understanding of swordplay throughout. But this is more than just another tale of gory battles. At its heart, this is a story about family.

The story opens in a bucolic idyll. The description captures the beauty of farmland with flower-filled meadows and lowing cows. The prose is beautiful, evocative and genuinely poetic. It makes you want to read it out loud. Obviously, this utopian land is going to be subject to darkness and evil. Here, too, language does so much to counterpoint the beauty. The characters that will form the basis of evil are chilling, foul things. Their actions revolt us. Even the touch of anything they’ve despoiled creates lingering, festering disease.

The horror, in some respects, comes from the protagonist’s daughters seeing all this. It’s the impact on these young girls that amplifies the horror. It resonates with you, if you have children of your own. What would you do to protect your family from these experiences?

There are so many ancient tales that do the same thing. Anna Smith Spark mines folklore to present us with a story that gives a tip of the hat to such tales. At the same time, presenting us with a modern take where women have the strength, the resilience and stamina to stand against this evil. Best of all, Kanda, our protagonist, brandishes her sword outside the traditional female tropes. She is a mother first and last. Yes, she has been a warrior but that doesn’t define her. Her maternal drive does.

It's this element that modernises the kind of stories we might expect from medieval literature. There’s more than a touch of Frigg about Kanda. Odin’s wife in Norse tales is also the goddess of motherhood yet a warrior too. There was horror in a lot of Nordic tales, such as the Draugr, animated corpses that are similar to the creatures in this story. My love of Norse and Celtic folk tales was well served by this book.

Let me finish by giving you a taste of the prose. It’s unique quality makes this book stand out. ‘A fine morning, damp and fresh and clean with the sky new-made pale, after long days of bitter heat. The wound of the sun’s rising fast-faded, the stars fled even in the farthest west. Wind stirs the aspen leaves and they sing and shiver; the cobwebs soread like hair, rain-wet and jewel-bedecked.’

Gorgeous.

Thanks to @NetGalley and @FlameTreesPress for the ARC of this novel.

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