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Brian Staveley Interview – Skullsworn

Brian Staveley

By now you should all probably know that the point of my interviews is simply to celebrate Wednesdays (doesn’t matter if it’s actually Wednesday or not). This time I have with me Brian Staveley, author of Skullsworn and the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, and a big lover of Wednesdays as well.

Brian Staveley is the author of the award-winning fantasy trilogy, The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decade, he began writing fiction. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades, won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award, the Reddit Stabby for best debut, and scored semi-finalist spots in the Goodreads Choice Awards in two categories: epic fantasy and debut. The entire trilogy, which includes The Providence of Fire and the The Last Mortal Bond has been translated into over ten languages worldwide.

Let’s see what he has to say.

Hey Brian. Thank you for agreeing to do this with me. I’ve started both Nicholas’ and Mark’s recent interviews with easy questions, and Peter’s with a weird one. Let’s start yours with a hard one: What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

African or European?

I don’t know that! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa–!

Okay, you pass the test – Let’s move on. The Shin monks have a lot of similarities with the Buddhist Monks and their teachings. Were you inspired by them, and if so, what research did you put into them?

The Emperor's Blades (cover)There is certainly a Buddhist lineage to the Shin, but I think the real-world historical analogue that often goes unremarked is Taoism. I used to teach comparative religion, and I was thinking explicitly of the Taoist thinker Chuang Tzu when I was composing some of the Shin aphorisms. Chuang Tzu, and of course the Tao Te Ching as well.

Interesting! Often in fantasy, religion and magic go hand in hand. Speaking of magic – if you had the opportunity to go back in time and change just one thing in your already published works, what would it be and why?

So many temptations! On a practical level, giving the Malkeenian scions burning irises proved an enormous pain in the ass. Whenever I wanted one of them to walk around unnoticed (which was a lot), I’d need to come up with some sort of conceit–hoods, blindfolds–so that no one noticed something that would have been incredibly obvious. Very vexing to write in a world with no dark shades.

I also wish I’d given Adare a larger role in The Emperor’s Blades. I always knew she was central to the story, and that she’d come into her own in later books, but I think her diminished role in the first book struck the wrong note.

I know a few people who’d agree – and plenty of others who wouldn’t want you to change a thing. Changing things in your books is cool and all that, but what about the publishing industry? What would you change there, to make things easier not only for you, but for every other published (or to-be-published) author?

It would be great if every publisher had an author portal where you could log in to see all your sales information in real time. I can get this info from Tor, but it involves calling up my editor and bugging him. Also, getting royalties quarterly rather than twice a year would be a nice touch. Also, also, higher royalty rates on ebooks.

All of which sounds fair. Let’s hope the powers that be are listening in.

Brian, your books have been described as maintaining the perfect balance between character development, worldbuilding, and pace. But have you ever struggled with any of them?

The Emperor's Blades (cover)I think character is the most important element. The most elaborate worldbuilding is just an academic exercise if that world isn’t adequately inhabited. Likewise, action scenes get boring very quickly if we’re not fully invested in the fates of the characters. To my mind, one of the masters of character within the genre is Joe Abercrombie, and I’ve learned a lot from studying his books.

As far as my struggles, I have a terrible visual imagination. It’s particularly hard for me to imagine faces, and so while my characters have consistent voices and psychology, even in a first draft, everything about their appearance tends to shift: black hair, blond hair, no hair, tall, short, etc.

Apart from the Malkeenians’ burning irises, of course . . .

Brian, you cited Joe Abercrombie as one of your artistic influences. Let’s talk briefly about a different kind of artistic inspiration. The Unhewn Throne US covers, which were done by the amazing Richard Anderson, depicted one particular scene from each book. How much input/influence did you have on them?

Contractually, I have no say in the cover art. My editor, however, Marco Palmieri, and Tor’s art director, Irene Gallo, have both been really welcoming of my input in the process. I usually suggest a scene or two from the novel that might make a good cover, and then Rich does two or three sketches. I send back some thoughts on those sketches and then Rich produces the final artwork, which is invariably gorgeous.

Agreed! Here’s a small sample for the uninitiated:

Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne (cover art banner)

I recall you also spoke about the cover creation process in the run-up to the launch of your latest novel, Skullsworn, which is a prequel to your original trilogy (and which Charlie Hopkins reviewed a few weeks ago). Can someone read Skullsworn without having read the other books first?

Absolutely. A bunch of the early reviews are from folks unfamiliar with the original trilogy, and they are unanimous in the opinion that the book stands on its own.

And what about people who have already read the other books and didn’t like them? What have you done differently this time, and why should they give you another chance?

Skullsworn (cover) by Brian StaveleyGreat question. Skullsworn is a very different book. For one thing, it’s told in the first person, unlike the trilogy, which is told in the third person from four different points of view. Skullsworn is quite a bit shorter than any of those books, and far more intimate. We’re not dealing with an existential threat to the world here, so much as the fate of a few people in a single city.

Very different indeed! As we’ve already mentioned, Skullsworn is a prequel. Are there any plans to continue the story after the events of The Last Mortal Bond?

Absolutely. I don’t want to spill the beans at this point, but there is a lot more to write about in the years and decades following the trilogy.

And to close this interview: It is known that you’re contracted for a bunch more fantasy books. Outside of those contracted, would you ever consider to change genres, perhaps writing some Sci-Fi stories?

I would, although I think it makes sense for now to keep building in the world I’ve established. That said, I’m writing a novella now which, although still fantasy, exists outside of the world of the Unhewn Throne books.

It sounds intriguing! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Brian!



  1. Avatar Richard says:

    Good interview of a good writer. Got a question though:

    SPOILERS So, I’m probably pretty dense for not picking this up, but why did the gods inhabit human form in the first place and make themselves vulnerable?

  2. […] Fantasy Faction has an interview with fantasy author Brian Staveley. […]

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