I had a so-so reaction to The Emperor’s Blades, the first book in Brian Staveley’s CHRONICLE OF THE UNHEWN THRONE trilogy, but he completely won me over with the second book, The Providence of Fire, and then brought me happily home with book three The Last Mortal Bond. So I was excited to see that his newest, Skullsworn, was set in the same universe and centered on Pyrre, one of the more intriguing characters in the trilogy thanks in no small part to her being an assassin-priestess of the death god Ananshael. Seriously, you pretty much have me at “assassin-priestess of the death god Ananshael.” I might just go to the movie that did nothing but repeat that line over and over.
Anyway, Skullsworn shows us just how Pyrre achieved the rank of priestess, which — as one might guess with the whole assassin-death god thing — involves some killing. Seven deaths to be exact, over the span of 14 days. And not just any deaths (these folks aren’t serial killers after all), but seven carefully prescribed victims, all conveniently laid out in a nice little teaching song:
One who is right, and one who is wrong,
A singer snared in a web of song …
A dealer of death …
A mother, ripe with new life …
A giver of names …
One more remains —
Give to the god the one who makes your mind
And body sing with love
Who will not come again
Not exactly “the hip bone is connected to the … “
Unfortunately, Pyrre is pretty sure she’s never been in love, isn’t even sure she knows how to love, and failing your Trial doesn’t just mean you don’t get to graduate with your class (hint: death god). Turns out though there was this one guy once (Ruc Lan Lac), back in the city she grew up in, that maybe kinda sorta was something approaching love and who knows, maybe she can fan those flames a little hotter. So she sets off on her Trial with her two Witnesses (the priestess Ela and the priest Kossal) for her hometown of Dombang where he commands (tenuously) the Empire’s forces that occupy the once independent city. The plan is to kill the first six while she makes herself fall in love with Ruc Lan Lac, so she can then kill him and get her wings (no, not literally).
That whole occupying Empire thing would make a little more sense if you’ve read the trilogy, as would one or two brief references to other things, but Skullsworn is absolutely a stand-alone novel, so nothing that happens here makes having read the trilogy first a necessity. Skullsworn works fine as dessert after the trilogy or just as fine as the appetizer before the trilogy. Mostly it just works.
One big reason is the voice, which Staveley absolutely nails right from the beginning, as an older Pyrre (the narrative is framed as a long flashback, with her relating the tale to someone else) tries to dispel some of the myths of the death god’s followers:
I don’t swear on skulls, not on them, not to them, not around them. I haven’t seen a skull for years, in fact. A bit of blood-smeared bone through a torn-open scalp perhaps, but an actual skull, wide-eyed and jawless? What in the god’s name would I be doing with a skull?
I do not drink the blood of children, either guilty or innocent. I do not drink the blood of humans or beasts. I did have a blood sausage in Sia once … but I ate it off a normal plate … and everyone else there seemed to be eating the same thing.
I should also clarify that I do not bathe in cauldrons of blood … The whole point of the bath is to scrub the blood off … I sift a little jasmine and ground sage into the boiling water. I like to be clean.
How can you not fall for that voice right off the bat?
Staveley, though, is just as good at duets as he is at monologues in this book, and the road show of Ela and Kossal is a delight throughout, with the former playing the sex-crazed huntress and the latter a version of Walter Matthau’s career as grumpy old guy. And yes, you know both have depths way beyond those surface characterizations, and those depths are wonderfully revealed at just the right moments, even movingly so, especially in contrast to just how funny and enjoyable the surface view is as they play off of each other.
Setting, along with voice and character, is another strong aspect of Skullsworn, with the city of Dombang coming to life in a swirl of sensual description. An overgrown warren of humanity crisscrossed by canals and built on a huge, silt-filled, reed-covered delta packed with creatures that can kill in all sorts of horrifying ways, Dombang is almost a character in its own right and makes for a wonderful background to the action.
And Staveley packs a good amount of action in — chases through streets and houses, bare-knuckled fighting, fights with crocodiles, political uprisings, betrayals, stabbings, human sacrifices. You’d think with all that coming in a book that just barely passes the 300-page mark that it would feel pretty pell-mell, but the author has a nice sense of balance, playing more frantic moments off against quieter, more introspective or philosophical discussions.
It all makes for a taut, tightly told story, one filled with tension, particularly in regards to Pyrre’s relationship with Ruc. I felt I knew where the story would ultimately end, and I turned out to be right, but I had no idea at all what would happen before that, and I loved not knowing. Skullsworn has lower stakes than the trilogy, much more personal stakes than the typical “end of the world as we know it” epic fantasy series, and in many ways I think that the book is stronger for it. It’s tighter, certainly. And the prose seems more heightened, the voice sharper, the mood and atmosphere more vividly depicted. Or maybe that’s all just the result of an author growing more confident the more he works at his craft. In any case, Skullsworn is an excellent read and one that leaves me eager for more from this author.
Take almost everything Bill said about Skullsworn, double it, and you’ll have 99.99% of my review. (The only difference is that this was my first foray into the world of THE CHRONICLE OF THE UNHEWN THRONE, but after reading Skullsworn, I guarantee I will be doubling back and reading The Emperor’s Blades.)
I was impressed by how well this functioned as a companion novel to the others — I assumed that, being completely unfamiliar with the world and its various peoples, I would be completely lost and unable to keep track of anything. Happily, I was wrong. I felt fully immersed in Pyrre’s experiences, and I appreciated the portions of exposition, especially since there were no moments when Staveley made it blatantly obvious that I’d missed something major by not reading the other books first. I do suspect that, once I’ve read the others and have returned to this volume, there will be conversations or character names that carry more significance, and I’m looking forward to that additional layer of recognition.
I’ve read some of Staveley’s earlier short fiction, and even in the jump from that to Skullsworn, I’ve noticed a definite sharpening of his authorial skills and honing of his craft. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future, and I highly recommend Skullsworn as an introduction to his talent and imagination.
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne — (2014-2016) Publisher: The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods. Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late. An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test. At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing — and risk everything — to see that justice is meted out.