Skullsworn by Brian Staveley (Pan Macmillan, Tor)
Review copy provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Genres: Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Pyrre is on trial. She has committed murder. But she isn’t a criminal. She is Skullsworn, acolyte of Anashael, the God of death.
To become a Priestess, she must complete the trial, a 14 day long mission to fulfil the words of a song. The song is a list of offerings to the god, victims of the acolytes training in death. One such offering must be “the one who made your mind and body sing with love”, and so Pyrre travels to Dombang, town of her birth, in search of a man from her past.
If she can fall in love with him, and then kill him, she is certain she will pass her trial. What awaits her in Dombang, however, is much bigger than her trial, and the requirements of her trial may not be as easy to fulfil as she believed. If she fails, all that awaits her is a violent death. She must not fail.
Phew! I feel like I need a breather.
Brian Staveley’s novels are truly epic. He has an uncanny ability to create entire worlds with a vast array of characters, religions and cultures. I was first introduced to Pyrre when I read the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series. Skullsworn is a prequel to those novels, and works brilliantly as a stand-alone story, so is perfect for readers new to Staveley’s work. Pyrre was always an intriguing member of the Unhewn Throne cast, however, so I’m delighted to learn more about her story.
She’s different in Skullsworn, though I can definitely see how she’ll evolve into the gruff, ferocious woman from the Unhewn Throne series. She’s a little more uncertain but I think she’s also more willing to take risks and accept and experience her own emotions. She’s a refreshing take on a female protagonist. One of the things I love about Staveley is that you’ll find no stereotypes in his work.
In Skullsworn you’ll also find no black and white. Each individual could be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but there is always something sympathetic to create a bit of tension and interest. It would be incredibly easy to view Pyrre and the other Skullsworn as evil murderers with a vile and depraved religion, but when Pyrre explains how she feels about Anashael and death, it kind of makes sense! Anashael is not a malicious god. Death should be painless and quick, the furthest from suffering. His followers also accept that there is no sacrifice in death without having known the beauty and wonder of life. Many of Anashael’s followers are great lovers of the arts, in particular music. It is these intricate details, so thoroughly explored, which take Staveley’s novels from the run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure to the masterclass in expert story-writing.
Skullsworn, at its centre, feels like an adventure novel. There are plenty of swashbuckling action scenes, intriguing plot twists and warring cultures to stop the novel from being a bit of a slog – it’s a big book! The novel is certainly not for the faint of heart, and I think to really enjoy it you’ve got to love reading. It’s long and involving and there are complex themes which can take a bit of thought to wrap your head around. Luckily, Staveley is great at knowing how to get this information across. He tells you what you need to know and when, but doesn’t rely on giving the reader too much description at any one time. By the end of the novel you’re left with the feeling that you really understand the world he’s created.
You’ll also be left with the satisfying feeling of a story well-finished. He really knows how to end a book. So often, novels fall at the final hurdle. The longer the book, the greater the build-up, and often the finale can seem a little lacking in comparison to the rest of the story. In contrast, I think Staveley’s novel is weakest in the middle. We’re met all of our characters, Pyrre is well into her trial and at times I feel the story may have been progressing a little too slowly for my liking. I do wonder, however, whether a faster pace would have made the ending a little less enjoyable.
Skullsworn is a great adventure with a dash of romanced, wrapped around a core of characters who will play with your emotions (and even your moral compass), I can’t recommend this novel enough. Just make sure you’re not going to be too busy for the next couple of weeks.
Skullsworn is released on 20th April 2017.