Book: “Skullsworn” by Brian Staveley
Publishing Info: Tor, April 2017
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: 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.
Review: Readers first met Pyrre in Staveley’s debut trilogy, “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne,” the badass assassin whose religious order, the Skullsworn, worship the deity of death, Anashael. When I heard that he was writing a spin-off (prequel?) that centered around this character’s origin story, essentially, I was a bit skeptical. Sure, Pyrre was great in her supporting role, but she at times came across as unbeatable, and thus having no conflict, and, while we got into a few of the details of her religion in those first books, it also seemed like its seemingly callous philosophy would present a challenge to creating a sympathetic main character. But, lo and behold, this book blew me away, setting all of those concerns to rest and reminding me just how much I’ve been craving good, standalone fantasy fiction.
Death is at the center of the story. And if that sounds morbid, well, Pyrre, and Staveley, have much to say on the subject. We meet Pyrre at the cusp of her journey to become a full priestess of Anashael, wherein she must complete her final trial, killing ten types of individuals all listed in an ancient song of the order. She has a specific number of days to complete this, all overseen by two witnesses, the grumbly, but deadly Kossal, and the bright, complicated Ela. To do this, she returns to her childhood home of Dumbang.
Having already been introduced to this world, I was particularly thrilled with the setting of Dumbang for this story, a confusing maze of swamp, floating islands, and deadly creatures. The culture, history, and city itself all tied neatly into the greater world we are already familiar with, but were so unique that they stood alone as a completely new slice of this world. Reading this story, I could almost feel the heavy presence of this city, its beauty, its mystery, and the foreboding sense that people are treading where they should not. It perfectly mirrors the philosophy that Pyrre and the Skullsworn abide by: that death is inevitable and, in many ways, the most merciful part of life. Not something to be feared, but to be lived alongside.
The story itself is so compelling, mixing action with adventure, comedy with heartbreak, and neatly tying together the pieces of Pyrre’s life to perfectly illustrate how she came to be who she is and how she will continue to grow into the woman we meet in later stories. Kossal and Ela are great characters off whom Pyrre bounces, challenging her, and the reader, to expand her thinking on what it means to worship Anashael and to live a full life. Ela, specifically, was brilliant, jumping off the page and stealing every scene she was in. At first I was concerned that she was going to fall into a fairly established character type, all smooth sexuality and arrogant charm. But as the story continued, I began to have greater and greater hopes for her as a character and her ultimate role in the story. All of which were ultimately met, much to my joy and relief.
Bizarrely, Run Lan Lac, the man who Pyrre seeks out with the goal to love and to kill, was one of the weaker characters for me. But, given the overall commentary on love and death, upon further reflection, I’ve almost come to feel that this might have been intentional? He plays his role, and I was glad to see that his character remained true throughout all the revelations of the story.
Towards the end, the plot takes a massive leap out into the greater mythology of the world. And, while I have read the original trilogy which lent these reveals some interesting added perspectives, the story itself remained contained within its own pages, and I feel that it is still approachable for new readers even with this more expansive later plotline.
I can’t say enough about the strength of Staveley’s writing. As I said earlier, there were so many challenges he gave himself with the premise of this story. A main character who worships death and kills people with few qualms who must be made into a sympathetic and appealing leading lady. A new setting with a complex history that must still fit within the constraints of a previously built world. Multiple religions with a variety of gods, some familiar from previous books, some new. All while trying to create a standalone novel that is approachable to new readers, but also familiar and appropriately laying the groundwork for a character known to readers of the original series. He not only does all of this, but the book was laugh-out-loud funny at parts and had me on the brink of tears at others. Staveley is quickly climbing the ranks of “must read” fantasy authors.
Rating 9: The epitome of setting tough writing goals and then blowing them all out of the water!
“Skullsworn” is a newer title and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Book with Heroes/Heroines Who are Assassins.”
Find “Skullsworn” at your library using WorldCat