Review: Skullsworn by Brian Staveley

Monday, April 10, 2017
Title: Skullsworn
Author: Brian Staveley
Genre: fantasy
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Published: expected April 25 2017
Source: ARC via publishers
Rating: 4.5/5

Brian Staveley’s new standalone returns to the critically acclaimed Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne universe, following a priestess attempting to join the ranks of the God of Death.

Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer--she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.

The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including "the one you love / who will not come again."

Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.

Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love...and ending it on the edge of her sword.

Last year, Brian Staveley wrapped up his Tang-China inspired sprawling fantasy series, The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne. However, while The Last Mortal Bond effectively concluded the storylines of most of its main characters by its end, there was still plenty of room left to explore in the invented and interesting world, and the various cultures created to populate it. One of the secondary characters of those previous novels was the scene-stealing, Ananshael-worshiping Pyrre Lakatur.  Skullsworn is her book, chiefly following the story of how she became a priestess of Death in the city of Dombâng, decades before the events shown in the later trilogy. 

The story of Pyrre's Trial is fantasy (and mirrors Hull's Trial from The Emperor's Blades), though it's not quite an epic fantasy novel. The world from Staveley's first series is once again used, but Skullsworn is narrower in scope, tighter in plotting, and also contained to this one volume. It's a fast-paced return to the world of Eridroa and an excellent introduction to the rest of Pyrre's backstory. Despite the fantasy trappings, the plot of Skullsworn is much more focused on interpersonal dynamics and conflicts, rather than involving a larger-scale dispute. Despite the changes in storytelling and (sub)genre, the author adapts his thousands-of-pages-spanning style well to crafting a viable adventure fantasy standalone: the world of Eridroa is expanded and explored and Pyrre's adventures are intense and well-paced. Her life is fleshed out with nuance and care -- all the characters in the book are layered and complex, but none more so than Pyrre herself. 

There are a lot of moving parts going on in Skullsworn's pages, all of it tied back together by the central character and her quest to kill 10 people in 10 days. Where before the Kettral and the scattered imperial heirs were the focus and journeyed all over the Annurian Empire, this prequel/standalone concentrates narrowly on the seething city of Dombâng, a city long-conquered and always primed for rebellion. Pyrre is joined there by a well-rounded and interesting cast of secondary characters to complicate her life and Trial. There is so much depth and detail and thought given to crafting to every aspect of the story: from how Pyrre's unique history is tied into the main plot of the Trial, to how the gods of Dombâng fit within the known pantheon of Eridroa and with Pyrre. Stavely is an author built for worldbuilding and he does it with creativity and lack of infodumps.   

The world Brian Stavely has created has always felt very real and very big with parts unknown, with lots of room for further exploration. His gift for creating new worlds and cultures is readily apparent in all aspects -- even cursing in Eridroa has its own rhyme and reason, relevant to how the various cultures within it view hell/damning (aka they don't so they use in-world curses like "'Shael-spawned", etc..) One of my favorite reasons for reading and reccomending his books is that he creates fantasies that don't feel like pseudoEurope mid 1200s; they don't feel like a tired retread of something already done. Skullsworn and particularly Dombâng, its environs, its history and culture, and the plot centered around the city are wildly different from anything shown in The Emperor's Blades or The Providence of Fire or The Last Mortal Bond. Staveley is an ambitious author but he's also inventive and rigorous enough that his reach doesn't exceed his grasp. 

I am  a fan of the author for his technical writing abilities; that much is obvious. But it's worth noting that the writing in Skullsworn is wonderful. Even when depicting harsh events -- murder-by-croc or spider eggs -- to describing the way light shifted, Staveley is an author that can write. It's no surprise that his background is in poetry because the descriptive and unique style used in his novels is lyrical and visual. Take this quote from The Last Mortal Bond since the ARC of this is not for quoting:

"Night was a foreign nation. It had always felt that way to Adare, as though the world changed after the setting of the sun. Shadow elided hard edges, hid form, rendered sunlight’s familiar chambers strange. Darkness leached color from the brightest silk. Moonlight silvered water and glass, made lambent and cold the day’s basic substances. Even lamps, like the two that sat on the desk before her now, caused the world to shift and twitch with the motion of the captured flame."
A fantastic standalone prequel, Skullsworn is a high-stakes adventure encompassing rebellions, killer spiders, love, and murder. It feels a bit short at just 304 pages but Pyrre's backstory is concluded smartly and with a few open possibilities for more in-world novels. Sure to please fans of the previous trilogy and also able to be read independent of Staveley's earlier books, Skullsworn is an excellent adventure fantasy.

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