Skullsworn is a new standalone fantasy novel from Brian Staveley; it’s set in the same universe as his sprawling “Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne” series, though set in a different part of the world. Whilst the Chronicles had a large cast, and was set in the sweep of grand events, Skullsworn is more intimate, but just as sharp – a stiletto in the dark to their predecessor’s flashing blades.
This is a novel about Pyrre, a worshipper of the god of death, a woman determined not to fail her Trial and to become Skullsworn – the priests of the god, whose sacrifices tend to align with the demise of those around them. Pyrre is perhaps best described as devout, and difficult. She is committed to becoming a member of her priesthood, and has the necessary lethal skills to do so – but she’s often awkward, struggling to interact with people in a non-mission oriented context. The effect is simultaneously charming and terrifying. Pyrre is, to her credit, aware of her shortcomings in this area, and struggles to be something more of a people person. This flaw goes alongside her speed, focus, and a delightful degree of competence to make her a lot of fun to read about, ash she works her way down the list of individuals she’ll have to arrange meet their demise in order to pass her trial. Some of these are odd, but none more so than the need to put to death someone she loves – itself a concept Pyrre has problems with. As she struggles to work out exactly what she feels, what it means, and what she should do, we also get to see a bit more of her psyche – a less than cheerful family past, a sense of stubborn viciousness, a refusal to surrender – and a previous whirlwind romance that might also have been a duel all play their parts. Staveley has done his best here to give us a complex, damaged protagonist, whose talents are held back due to her own compromises, and not because those talents happen to involve killing rather a lot of people.
She’s joined for her trial by two adjudicators – one a sprightly people pleaser, as apt to seduce the bellboy as to poison the restaurant; the other a grumbling elder, worn down by life, and struggling to see it as anything but a burden – to himself, or to other people. Both mentor Pyrre, helping her to work out exactly what she wants and how to achieve it – whilst cheerfully admitting that if she fails her trial, they’ll kill her themselves. There’s a thread of black humour running right through the text, a central part of the ties between Pyrre and her judges. There’s a dry tone in here, a means of making the priests of death empathetic and often downright funny – the dialogue sizzles, and raises both wry chuckles and the occasional belly laugh. But this isn’t just a comedy – there’s a vulnerability to Pyrre, a woman seeking the truth of who she is, and an honesty, a truth to her interactions both with the priests who follow here, and the victims she puts down. There’s questions here about what we value, and why, whether any one role is superior to another, how far someone will go to meet their goals – and each page courses with subtext, challenging the reader to unpick it, to look at the complexity of the world and the people that slide quietly off the page.
Most of the text takes place in the city where Pyrre was born, before leaving, perhaps somewhat hastily, for other climes. It’s sat on a delta surrounded by a murderous swamp and jungle which stretches out of sight. The swamp is filled with lethal bugs, which lay their eggs in people and cause them to drop dead, lethal fish, which tear people apart, lethal snakes, which bite people and have them turn black and die – and so on. The delta hums with vitality, though – as does the city sat at its heart. Conquered by the Annurian Empire centuries previously, the people hold onto their culture and identity with enthusiasm – and in some cases, with a fanatical hatred. The humidity, the crawling closeness of the city, the danger of the outskirts, all draw a picture of a powder keg, waiting for a careless match to make it go up in flames –or perhaps, in the case of Pyrre, a rather carefully thrown match. In any event, the city is a personality in itself, a thriving, vivid gestalt, which takes in wanderers and citizens, and gives them death and life in equal measure.
The plot – well, this is, in many ways, the story of Pyrre. She showed up in the Chronicles, but this book helps us understand who she is, and how she got there. But it’s also a story with conspiracy, with the aforementioned dark humour in plenty, with high (and highly personal) stakes. It also has some absolutely brilliant fight scenes, which have a force and energy that rips them off the page and sets the participants to their fatal dance around you. Oh, and there may even be a bit of romance as well.
I was a fan of the Chronicles – of the epic tale they told, of the risks it took, and the new ideas it threw out along the way, but I think that Skullsworn may have exceeded it. This is a warm, funny, character focused novel which is also darkly charming, bloody, and lethal. It was very, very hard to put down, and had an emotional punch to match its high adrenaline moments. If you enjoyed the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, this is a more than worthy successor text – and if you’ve never read those, you can pick this up, and know you’re in for a fantastic (if sometimes violent) journey.