LitStack Review: Skullsworn by Brian Staveley

(Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series)
Brian Staveley
Tor Books
Release Date: April 25, 2017
ISBN 978-0-7653-8987-9

One of the major strengths of Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne epic fantasy series (The Emperor’s Blades, The Providence of Fire, The Last Mortal Bond), is his characters. While often they sit comfortably in a particular trope (quiet yet powerful, suffering male leader; feisty, overlooked younger sister; mysterious elder monk with almost inhuman abilities; etc.), their depth and complexity is truly mesmerizing.

Within this framework is a very interesting character named Pyrre. We first meet her as a prattling, vulgar merchant, but it quickly becomes apparent this is a ruse. She is actually a priestess of Ananshael, the god of death. Pyrre’s injection into the story gives an interesting counterpoint to the concept of killing, and her skill at dispatching at will proves invaluable to those whom she has been charged with protecting.

In Skullsworn, we find Pyrre in her early years, as she is embarking on the Trial that will allow her to become the priestess we meet later. To complete her Trial, she must make seven kills in fourteen days, according to a specific ritual of the order, or else sacrifice herself to her god. Pyrre is confident in her abilities, but the final command has her consumed with unfamiliar doubt:

Give to the god the one who makes your mind
And body sing with love
Who will not come again.

For this is something Pyrre has never experienced – love. And now she has only fourteen days to fall in love, knowing that when she does she must give that love up to Ananshael.

It makes for a compelling premise, and one that author Staveley develops with a thoroughness and a richness that we’ve come to expect from his earlier work. And while this book may not be as brutal as his original trilogy, there is plenty of death and destruction – not all of which is meted out by human hands – to keep the reader on edge.

Brian Staveley is a master at building an environment and peopling it with well defined characters in complex situations. Main characters Pyrre, her two witnesses – promiscuous priestess Ela and taciturn priest Kossal – and Ruc Lan Lac, an acquaintance from her past, are clearly drawn, as one would expect. But the myriad of secondary and even bit players that Mr. Staveley utilizes are also given careful if glancing care, lending clarity to both the environment and the action without overcrowding. It’s a wonderful juggling act that feels effortless, evidencing remarkable skill.

Likewise with the city of Dombâng in the Shirvian delta, the place where Pyrre was raised and where she returns to complete her Trial. Mr. Staveley seamlessly gives the reader its background as well as knowledge of its ruthlessness and its myriad dangers, both within the city itself and the surrounding swamps. He starts with a bang, pulls you in, and then circles around to fill in the gaps, ever ratcheting up the threat as he goes.

There are times when Mr. Staveley waxes on a bit too long in his descriptions and internal reflections, and Pyrre’s constant rehashing of her insecurities about love seems disingenuous with the rest of her character. And yes, Ela’s constant lasciviousness strains the wonderfully astute observations she gifts us with in her stronger moments (her verbal sparring with Kossal, and the depth she gives his character in her counterpoint, is exceptional, and often charming). But these are passing transgressions, and somewhat expected by those of us who are familiar with the author’s expository style.

The bottom line is that Skullsworn is a densely woven, brilliantly realized, unique story based on an existing world that nevertheless feels fresh and invigorating. The characters, ideology and background may have been introduced in other works, but they come alive in this novel, losing nothing in an untethered read. The line between yearning for love and embracing death is expertly balanced in a single, compelling character, and resonates in the verity and impact of both.

If you enjoy epic fantasy that is gritty, complex and focused, the works of Brian Staveley are hard to beat. Skullsworn is a wonderful addition to his world, and regardless of if you are familiar with The Unhewn Throne books or not, you’ll welcome this new work.

Skullsworn hits bookshelves today, April 25.

~ Sharon Browning


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