Cover illustration by: Richard Anderson (flaptrapsart)
Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne (Book #4 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy
Pages: 320 pages (US Hardcover edition)
Published: 20th April 2017 by Tor (UK) & 25th April 2017 by Tor Books (US)
Absolutely marvelous. Not only Skullsworn is Staveley’s best work so far, it’s also one of the most well-written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Skullsworn is a standalone prequel to Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy; focusing on Pyrre Lakatur—one of my favorite characters from the main trilogy—as she faces her final trial to become the Priestess of Ananshael, the god of death. To pass her trial, Pyrre has fourteen days to kill the seven people depicted in an ancient song, including the one she loves / someone who will not come again. The main problem in this trial for Pyrre isn’t the killing itself, but love; she isn’t sure if she’s ever been in love or whether she knows what love is. If she fails to find someone to love—and then kill—she will fail the trial and die in the hands of the Priests of Ananshael. Pyrre isn’t afraid of death but she hates failing, and hence, she returns to the city of her birth, Dombang, in the hope of finding love and ending it with her blade.
“Love is not some eternal state, but a delight in the paradise of the imperfect. The holding of a thing is inextricable from the letting go, and to love, you must learn both.”
The book wasn’t as epic in scope in comparison to the main trilogy, but in my opinion it was even more compelling and incredible to read. Skullsworn is a story about life, death, devotion, and love; it’s a heavily character-driven book that serves as the origin story of Pyrre. As I mentioned before, Pyrre was one of my favorite characters from the main trilogy, and I’m very happy to say that her prequel standalone story strengthened that notion. Her devotion to her god, her past, her nuanced personality, and the emotional difficulties she faced were all immensely believable. Staveley breathes life into the name ‘Pyrre’ with his graceful and lush prose; which I’ll get into in details later. Beneath the trials, secrets, and bloodshed, Skullsworn can also be considered a love story. Now, if you’re not a stranger to my reviews, you should know by now that romance very rarely works for me. I emphasize on the word rarely because this is one of the few cases where the romance actually didn’t bother me. Pyrre’s character was gradually and superbly developed. Plus, even though the story was told solely through Pyrre’s perspective in the first person, the side characters, Ruc, Ela, and Kossal were so well fleshed-out that they helped to create dynamic and engaging interactions.
Even in this relatively small book, the partly Asian-inspired city of Dombang was brimming with history, cultures, and vivid setting under Staveley’s masterful pen. The fish-scale lanterns, the claustrophobic alleys, the deadly atmosphere of the city which accompanied the characters like a haunting melody, the city truly bursts into life with intricate descriptions. Every moment Pyrre spent in this city made me feel like I was really there. While this book can be read without reading the main series, reading them will be helpful in familiarising yourself to some important in-world terminologies; Kettral and Csestriim, to name a couple. Besides, if you haven’t read the main trilogy, you should really give it a go as it’s a great series anyway.
“It takes work to keep the world whole. A simple thing like a cup needs to be cleaned each day, placed carefully back on the shelf, not dropped. A city, in its own way, is every bit as delicate. People move over the causeways, ply the canals with their oars, go between their markets and their homes, buy and barter, swindle and sell, and all the while, mostly unknowingly, they are holding that city together. Each civil word is a stitch knitting it tight. Every law observed, willingly or grudgingly, helps to bind the whole. Every tradition, every social more, every act of neighborly goodwill is a stay against chaos. So many souls, so much effort, so difficult to create and so simple to shatter.”
Each book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne has ended with amazing battle sequences. This was especially true in The Last Mortal Bond, and Skullsworn is not an exception. The last chapter of the book—the climax sequences—was absolutely breathtaking and brilliantly written. The tension in the orchestra of death and joy were palpable – the clashing of glimmering steels was heard, the flurry of attacks was seen, the scent of relentless bloodshed; it was a deadly and emotional battle that heightened my senses to its peak. Staveley has undoubtedly delivered a satisfying and fantastic conclusion with a maelstrom of blood, violence, and tragedy. One of the many things I really loved about the action was how Staveley composed a thrilling tempo and rhythm to correlate music with the art of killing that resulted in bloody gorgeous cinematic scenes; which brings me to his prose.
“Our human flesh is better than most things at keeping pace with its own decay, and yet it takes so little—a tiny knife dragged across the windpipe, a dropped roof tile, a puddle three inches deep—to unmake a man or woman. It’s amazing, given everything’s fragility, that we don’t live in a smashed world, all order and structure utterly undone, the whole land heaped with bone, charred wood, carelessly shattered glass. It amazes me sometimes that anything is still standing.”
There’s no way I’m closing this review without any mention about the writing because I am completely stunned by Staveley’s prose in this novel, which struck me with a staggering blow. From the very first page, I was seduced by the writing and that seduction lasted until I closed the last page of the book. Every page, paragraph, sentence, and word left me in awe. It was simply astounding how Staveley chose his words and composed the most exquisite phrases/expressions. I honestly think that Staveley is one of the rare authors who can make grimdark feel elegant and graceful. The book was extremely well-polished and meticulously written; it has by far his best prose and that’s saying a lot considering how incredibly well-written the main trilogy already was. Words dissolved into vivid imagery, and the resplendent prose was used as an emotive tool that undeniably earned my reverence. In a different way, it reminded me a bit of the prose in Lancelot by Giles Kristian and The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss; not in that they have similar prose, but the way their writing allured and enchanted me was of equal gravitas.
My words aren’t enough to explain just how extraordinary the writing was. Staveley’s prose in Skullsworn is exemplary to me; when I write a book, I’ll consider my prose great if I’m able to achieve a fraction of the writing skill evident here. Skullsworn is an outstanding book enhanced by superlative prose that exceeded my expectations in every possible way. If you’re a character-driven fantasy enthusiast like me, with temerity I recommend you to treat yourself by giving this magnificent standalone a read.
Special thanks to my girlfriend for gifting me this absolutely gorgeous book. Once again, Richard Anderson’s (flaptrapsart) cover artwork didn’t fail to reflect the greatness of the content; in reverse, the content did the cover justice.
You can order the book from: Book Depository (Free shipping)
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