Book Review: Skullsworn

Book Review: Skullsworn

After I finished reading The Last Mortal Bond a few months back, I was thrilled to discover that Brian Staveley would be releasing a standalone story about Pyrre Lakatur, everyone's favorite death priestess and assassin. So here we are, a few weeks after Skullsworn's release. And let me tell you - it does not disappoint.

Skullsworn takes place several years before the events of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Pyrre is still an apprentice, and she's ready to take her trial for full priesthood: killing seven people who meet certain criteria. The first six, she's not worry about, but the seventh could be a problem - she has to kill someone she loves, and Pyrre has never been in love. Pyrre goes back to her homeland of Dombang with her two Witnesses and mentors in tow, to find the one man she thinks she can love. In the process, she embroils herself in a potential uprising and just maybe puts herself on the bad side of some nasty swamp gods.

When I reviewed The Emperor's Blades a year ago, I called Staveley out for generic worldbuilding that didn't feel nuanced or real. That Staveley has disappeared, replaced by a Staveley who builds worlds so detailed you can taste them. Everything about Dombang feels alive; the city is as much a character in this book as any of the humans going about their lives. And it's a setting you don't often see in fantasy books; I can't tell you the last time I read a book set in a swamp.

Dombang is also the perfect backdrop for Pyrre. Just in seeing Dombang and knowing she grew up there, I gained so much insight into Pyrre as a character. (Honestly, I don't know if I can give Staveley much higher praise than that). 

Circling back to the plot, it's nice to see a complex book that's still a standalone. You can read Skullsworn without reading Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne and still understand what's going on. Staveley takes a nice coming-of-age conceit and darkens it with some murder and rebellion, all the while contrasting the darker themes with Pyrre's search for love. It's never slow, it never drags, and it'll lead you on a merry chase through the swamp, fighting against crocodiles and cults as Pyrre pieces together what's going on around her.

I also love, love, LOVE books with nosy, interfering gods that interact with humans - something I appear to share with Staveley, given the events of his first trilogy and Skullsworn. Never them, guys. Never them. (Read the book and those words will become chilling).

I saw the resolution of the main plot coming, but it wasn't telegraphed in an obvious way and I think it will come as a surprise to many readers. Staveley manages to fold a lot of threads together in one large, climactic scene at the end that defines Pyrre and who she will become. It's one of the most satisfying conclusions I've read in recent years; I had a lovely sense of contentedness after reading this, which surprisingly few books achieve.

Skullsworn is written in first-person, not the third-person limited so common to epic fantasy, but it's a good choice for what Staveley wants to achieve here: really delving into Pyrre. He does it so well that he even addresses why it's in first-person; I won't spoil, but it casts the whole book in a new light.

Staveley certainly achieves that goal; while there are many memorable side characters, Pyrre is the queen of this show. She's just as satisfying to read as she was in Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, and she's witty, sarcastic and contemplative by turns. Her realness and humanity shine through her narration, even when her beliefs seem alien to us.

Speaking of which, that may be my favorite aspect of this book: the exploration of beliefs around death and love. This book mixes action and fun with poignant and touching reflections on how both death and love affect us. I can honestly say that Pyrre's beliefs about death forced me to take a hard look at how I personally view death (and again, I'm not sure I can pay Staveley much higher praise - fantasy books don't often make me reconsider my viewpoints on life).

I'm going to round this off with one final comment - Staveley's prose has come a long way from his debut novel, and there are some exquisitely written passages in this book. I'm a sucker for good prose as much as good story and good world, so reading Skullsworn was like hitting the jackpot.

This book gave me everything I expected and wanted, and then some. I would highly recommend Skullsworn, especially if you're looking for a standalone fantasy novel. Staveley is rocketing up my list of favorite authors with each new book he writes, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Grade: 5/5

Memorable Quote:

My god is a great lover of music. Not the still, finished forms of painting or sculpture, but music. Music is inextricable from its own unmaking. Each note is predicated on the death of those before. Try to hold them all, and you have madness, cacophony, noise. A song, like a life, is all in the letting go, in the knowing, the moment you begin, that it will end. And of all music’s variegated forms - fiddle and drum, harp and horn, plangent or joyous - Ananshael loves the human voice, the sound of the instrument giving song to the knowledge of its own impermanence.
— Skullsworn, pg. 16
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