I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Peter Brett’s DEMON CYCLE series from the beginning, and the most recent addition, The Skull Throne, continues to impress, even as it sidelines two of its major characters for the vast majority of the book. Fair warning, the review can’t help but offer up some spoilers for prior novels, especially the last one, which ended literally on a cliffhanger.
The prior books have shifted from emphasizing various points of view, but especially focusing on Arlen (the eponymous “Warded Man”), Jardir, and Inevera. Here, Jardir and Arlen make only very brief appearances, enough to resolve that cliffhanger closing of book three and to point us the way to major events (I assume) in book five, as the two plan an assault on the Core itself, home to the demons that have been ravaging their world. Seeing as how those two have been at odds with how to deal with the demon war for some time, with the two offering up some nearly fatal personal betrayals as well as waging a war of “unification” that killed thousands, their alliance is, to say the least, a tad bit tense and always apparently on the edge of fraying and turning into violence. Despite their limited time, therefore, their scenes together tend to be quite strong, brimming as they do with barely contained conflict. A conflict that is nicely balanced by restrained conversation exploring their underlying philosophies, which are diametrically opposed despite having the same end goal — victory against the demons. Each side gets to argue their point without one or the other of the characters being painted as wholly evil or incorrect or fanatical. In other words, the reader is left to struggle with the conflict as much as the characters are.
As mentioned, though, this is only a very small portion of the 600-plus page book. Most of the novel focuses on Inevera, Jardir’s first wife, as she has to deal with the sudden disappearance of her husband, leader of the Krasians. The power vacuum touches off a fierce battle (though not one fought by soldiers on fields of blood) between Jardir’s sons as to who gets to sit on the now-empty Skull Throne and lead their people. With factions lining up behind each, Inevera has to navigate the troubled waters of family, court politics, and the ongoing war with the North so as to keep the Krasians from erupting in civil war and losing track of their real enemy. Meanwhile, the North is also focused on issues of politics, family, and blood, with Leesha and Rojer trying to find a way to ally with the Duke of Angiers, Leesha dealing with the potential repercussions of her soon-to-be-visible pregnancy (carrying the son of the Krasnian warleader may just complicate her ongoing romance with Count Thamos, who is leading the resistance), and Rojer adding to the complication via his two Krasian wives.
As one can see, there’s a lot going on here with a slew of characters, and for the most part Brett handles it all deftly, juggling the characters with fine balance, shifting smoothly amongst varying points of view, and keeping the book moving mostly at a good pace, though for perhaps the first time in the series I felt things lagging now and then.
I said in my review of the series’ first book, The Warded Man, that Brett manages to do a lot with what are, after all, some common tropes of the genre, and this continues to hold true here. We still have, after all, the roguish, befuddled-by-women songster; the finger-talk, the brutally stern desert warrior way of life, etc. But as with the previous books, the familiarity of some of the tropes is trumped by the excellent characterization. For instance, we continue to see Inevera develop as she moves behind the scenes to push events in her desired direction. Her surprising ally in this is Abban, Jardir’s merchant friend and advisor who has often been at odds with Inevera in the past. He remains a favorite character of mine, and I enjoyed seeing him try to ride the wave of events as he ends up stuck with Jardir’s impetuous, sadistic, and none-too-bright son Jayan as he moves to attack a major city (Jayan’s character, a bit one-note, is one of the weaker aspects of the novel). Other characters, meanwhile, develop in sometimes surprising ways, and so I won’t say much about that or even name them so as to avoid ruining those surprises. Suffice to say they added a lovely bit of bite to the story. One of my favorite facets of this storyline is how not just the individual characters but the Krasian society as a whole develops, as both the events of the war, as well as the outside influence of the Northerners they’ve conquered or been forced to deal with, conspire to force major changes in, for instance, the way society views women and homosexuals. Warfare and conquest are often the conduits of new ideas, and we probably don’t see enough of that in fantasy. Here it is all nicely laid out (and not just the social side of things either, as we see the Northerners pretty quickly steal one of the Krasian’s best weapons, much to the desert warriors’ dismay).
The action scenes involving the Krasians are balanced by the smaller-scale, more domestic events in Cutter’s Hollow and then Angiers. As mentioned, Leesha’s romance with Count Thamos continues to develop even as her pregnancy, which can no longer be hidden (at first from wise eyes and then from just about anybody’s eyes), threatens to overturn that relationship, which might have major repercussions well beyond her love life, as the Count is the one in charge of protecting the Hollow. When the Hollow’s folk — Leesha, the Count, Gared, Rojer, his two Krasian wives, are summoned by the Duke and the Count’s powerful mother (a character who works as a nice structural parallel to Inevera), the stakes get raised quite a bit.
The book does sometimes lag a bit, as mentioned, and to be honest, while the battles with the demons are well-handled, they do eventually fall into a sort of been-there-seen-that mode, with the same sort of warded pummeling and healing and repeat. But the characterization remains sharp, with characters either continuing to grow and mature, revealing sides of themselves previously hidden, or making some sharp (yet wholly believable) turns. As well, I enjoy reading about smart characters using their wits, and we get to see a lot of that in The Skull Throne, especially from Inevera, Abban, and the Duke’s mother.
By the end of the book, alliances have shifted, power has been both lost and gained, and Brett has signaled to us that nobody is immune to either great shift in fortune or out and out dying. It’s clear things are coming to a head, both in the cultural clash between the Krasians and the north and in the small group attack on the Core itself. I for one am greatly looking forward to what happens with both.