Book Review: Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (April 25, 2017)
Length: 304 pages
Brian Staveley returns to the world of The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne with this new standalone novel starring one of the most intriguing characters from his debut trilogy. When we first met Pyrre Lakatur, she was shrouded in mystery. Whether she was ally or enemy, it was hard to tell, but clearly, the imperturbable priestess of Ananshael was one capable, dangerous woman.
Skullsworn is her story. Just who is Pyrre? Where did she come from? What is it about her god that inspires so much of her love and loyalty? If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, then this book is for you. But even if you haven’t read The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, this book would make a splendid introduction to Staveley’s work—especially if you want to get your feet wet with something that has a less intimidating page count before taking the plunge into the full trilogy. This book stands alone from the others, and is a prequel of a sort, taking place in a distant corner of the Annurian Empire.
When the story begins, Pyrre is still an acolyte, twenty-five years old and pledged to Ananshael—the God of Death. For years she has trained in the sacred arts of death, learning countless ways to deliver victims into her god’s embrace. But unless she can pass her final trial, she will never become a priestess…and the problem is, Pyrre isn’t sure she can.
It’s not the actual killing that has her worried, but rather who she has to kill—and not for the reasons you’d expect. The rules of the trial are very specific. In a span of fourteen days, Pyrre must make seven offerings to her god—no more, no less: one who is right, and one who is wrong; a singer snared in a web of song; a dealer of death; a mother ripe with new life; a giver of names; and finally, we come to the last one that gives Pyrre pause—“Give to the god the one who made your mind and body sing with love / Who will not come again.”
The trouble is, Pyrre doesn’t believe she has ever been in love. And if she hasn’t been in love, she can’t kill the one she loves, and if she can’t kill the one she loves, she fails her trial, and all those acolytes of Ananshael who fail the final trial offer themselves to their god. Now you see her problem.
Still, Pyrre is determined to pass the test, which means hitting the road with her two trial Witnesses in tow. Their destination is the swamp city of Dombâng, where Pyrre was born and where she first felt the spark of something special for a man she used to know. It is her hope that with proximity and maybe a little…encouragement, perhaps that spark could be rekindled again and grow into something more. However, it has been years since she last saw Ruc Lan Lac, the object of her probable affection. He is now the captain of the Greenshirts, the constabulary force charged with keeping order in Dombâng, and at the moment his hands are full trying to keep dissenters from tear the city apart. Pyrre intends to get close to Ruc by offering help—but in order to do that, she’ll first need to further incite rebellion.
And now I’ve probably gone and mucked up my summary by making this one sound like a romance. Well, it is. Kind of. In a…weird, twisted sort of way. Leave it to Brian Staveley to inflict the cruelest kind of cognitive dissonance, making you root for the main couple even knowing that no matter how the situation turns out, the end will be filled with blood, violence and death.
The fact that Pyrre appears more agitated by her seeming incapacity to love rather than the idea of actually killing a loved one should tell you something about her character. This is a woman who has given herself entirely to her god, and she also hates the idea of failure. In this sense, she is the Pyrre we knew and loved from The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. However, in Skullsworn we also get to see a more youthful and less confident side of her, which was fascinating; in time, we know she will grow into an even more deadly weapon, but right now her personality and skills are still in the process of being tempered.
Unlike the books in the trilogy, Skullsworn is also told from the first person perspective—a nice touch as that puts us right inside of Pyrre’s head, giving us a front row seat to all her experiences and tumultuous emotions. While this does take away some of her mystery, the wealth of knowledge we gain about her character and background is a much bigger reward. Don’t get me wrong; Pyrre is still bloodthirsty, insane and zealously devoted to Ananshael, but this book went a long way in making her feel more like a genuine person rather than just a cold, calm unstoppable killing machine. It shows she was once young, naïve and inexperienced, filled with self-doubt and questions about her god and her faith. It shows that she has a softer side to her that isn’t all about death and killing, a part of her that she wants to stay connected to because love has more to do with death than she expected.
I also want to talk a bit about the writing. It always amazes me to follow an author’s releases year after year and see their style evolve and grow, and clearly Staveley has come a long way since The Emperor’s Blades. His prose is fantastic and well-suited for the narrative mode, making a complex and nuanced character like Pyrre feel fully-realized and believable. The story also takes us into a very different part of the world, introducing readers to the hot, humid croc-infested marshes of Dombâng. It’s a city that holds many secrets, filled with shadowy factions and self-seeking individuals all operating to the raucous sounds along the bridges and canals. Despite being a dangerous place, Staveley’s incredible world-building and detailed treatment of Dombâng made me wish that I never had to leave.
So, do yourself a favor and pick up Skullsworn. Brian Staveley deftly weaves a fast-paced and compelling tale filled with excellent characterization, vivid world-building, and high personal stakes, making this one an outstanding novel on every level.