Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Release Date:||April 25, 2017 (US) April 20, 2017 (UK)|
Skullsworn is a standalone novel set in the world established by The Chronicles of the Unhewn but set before the events of that trilogy. It follows one of the Chronicle’s deadliest characters and a huge fan favourite Pyrre Lakatur in an origin type story that allows us to bear witness to her final trial before becoming a fully-fledged Priestess of Ananshael – The God of Death.
She must kill ten people in ten days, all of whom are tied to an ancient song, which includes “the one you love/who will not come again”. Her failure to do so will result in her death at the hands of her witnesses Ela and Kossal. Pyrre’s problem is she has never been in love and this leads her back to her home town and the only man that ever caught her attention, a past she would rather forget and memories that may kill her as they resurface.
This book is all about conflict. Pyree is a trained killer but as a Skullsworn does not consider herself to be an assassin let alone casual murderer and is back in a place she never wanted to be.
“Where the mountain fastness of my god was all emptiness, stone cliff, knife-edged shadow, and the stark sun, carving its perfect arc across the sky, the Weir was sweat and rot and life, ten thousand voices, ten thousand hands, all so close they seemed to press against your flesh. By the time we reached Rat Island, I was ready to stab someone in the eye just to make a little space.”
She must find and feel real love when she has never experienced it herself and therefore, like some reality show from a sick dystopian future where the Bachelorette is executed at the end, is forcing everything and experience nothing. She is used to solving any conflict as her God requires it but during her final trial she can only kill those that fulfil certain requirements leaving her vulnerable.
“Wholesale slaughter was expressly forbidden by the terms of my Trial. It would be no good finally falling in love if I’d already failed.”
As season veterans Ela and Kossal display a level of fighting prowess that makes Pyree look merely skilled and she constantly finds herself second-guessing her worthiness as a devotee. The list goes on and on and her battling through these challenges is what makes Pyree so damn good to read.
Her target is Ruc Lan Lac and we get a nice flashback spread over the course of the book as Pyree relates to Ela the story of their first meeting. He is an indomitable character, a natural and cocky fighter and as a fellow sceptic is hard not to like. He does not deal in myth and legend and stands out amongst his dumb and dumber soldiers as the only one willing to deal with the reality of the situation rather than all the spiritual possibilities.
“This……is their work, their attempt to take back something they lost. They don’t have argument or policy or military might on their side. All that they have is the old stories, stories of snakes in throats and violets in eyes – those stories are their only weapons and stories are only weapons if you repeat them.”
Ela is as comfortable with different levels of friendship, love and intimacy as Kossal is not. Her grace, skill, confidence and years of training combine with her physical allures to make her a deadly weapon with a waspish wit. She is everyman’s dream and downfall depending entirely on her feelings at the time.
Kossal on the other hand plays his flute to keep himself from killing patrons in the bar, though finds greater annoyance in their applause than he derives from the silence his playing creates so is stuck in a somewhat prickly paradox. Whatever love used to exist in his life is long gone and now he remains a humble and cranky Priest of Death.
“I take offence when I hear of things that can’t be killed. In the name of my god I’m inclined to find them and kill them…..Worship is a coin with two sides: killing and dying. I’m here to make sure that everyone takes a turn at each”
There is a real old school feel to both these characters and they’re as dry as a bone when it comes to talking their way through a situation. Their dialogue is magnificent at times and Staveley has done a great job creating two very different characters that both revel in displaying a complete inability to feel fear. No situation is an insurmountable challenge because even death is a really decent outcome and it allows them enormous freedom to entertain the reader.
If you have had the pleasure of reading The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne trilogy the Annurian Empire that Staveley has created will be fleshed out even more as we get a look at a new kind of God, hear more about the Csestriim and Navariim and their ancient war and enjoy a small time of relative peace before the Emperor’s kids start smashing their way around. If you are new to this world you won’t be as familiar with these elements but as a standalone it does a great job at feeding you relevant details and not drowning you with huge info dumps to try and catch you up with three books of worldbuilding. That being said you’ll miss out on the quick high I got every time the Kettrel were referenced.
Skullsworn displays Staveley’s signature bleak style, characters that are teeming with conflict and inner turmoil and exciting small and large-scale fight scenes that should keep every fan of the genre entertained. There were so many fantastic scenes including a bridge collapse that took me right back to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a pit fight or three, a magnificent confrontation that sets a new bar for a two on one fight and also countless moments where that crazy feeling you have when you like someone and you just want them to notice you is perfectly displayed. The ending is full of surprises and a lot more inventive and ghastly than I could have imagined, it makes me look forward to my next foray into this exciting universe and makes it easy to give this one a very high recommendation.