Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone (Unhewn Throne Series)
Publisher: Tor Books (April 25, 2017)
Length: 304 pages
My Rating: 2.5 stars
With his new standalone novel Skullsworn, Brian Staveley returns to the world of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, focusing on one of the characters from that trilogy: Pyrre. This priestess a dedicated follower of the God of Death, wrapped in mysterious and deadly by any measure. But even after three epic fantasy books, little is know about her: who she really is, what she truly believes, and why she loves death so much. And if you are a reader who wants to discover more about Pyrre or someone who just wishes to sample Brian Staveley’s writing without committing to an intimidating epic fantasy trilogy, then Skullsworn is a novel you might want to try.
Taking place years before The Emperor’s Blades, Pyrre is twenty-five years old and a mere acolyte of the god Ananshael, trained in the sacred arts of dealing death in all its myriad ways. But, now, she is faced with a final trial before she is anointed a true priestess of death, one she fears she cannot pass.
It isn’t the seven murders she must commit in 14 days, or the fact that she must kill particular types of people — including a pregnant woman — that worries Pyrre. Rather, it is the final offering she must give to Ananshael: the one she loves. Problem being that Pyrre has never loved anyone. Not anyone she recalls anyway. And if she can’t fall in love and kill her beloved within the prescribed time, then she not only fails the test but must sacrifice herself to Ananshael!
Never one to be intimidated by insurmountable circumstances, our strong-willed, determined, and resourceful acolyte sets out with her two “Witnesses” to journey to her home city of Dombâng with a desperate plan. Many years ago, there was a young man whom Pyrre was involved with there. She can’t say she loved Ru Lan Lac (Well, she isn’t sure, because she really doesn’t know what love feels like.), but he was close to her at one time, someone she felt affection for. And, now, she returns to that past determined to unleash a rebellion in the always volatile city in order to get close to Ru Lan Lac (He is the local constable), certain that once they are together the old flames of their passion with rekindle, to be followed by love; at which point, Pyrre will kill him.
Fantasy romance, I’m sure some of you are assuming right about now. And Skullsworn is about someone trying to understand love and fall into it . . . sort of. But it isn’t the kind of love most of us think about when we say “romance,” because Pyrre is an assassin whose perspective on life (including love) is abnormal: absent any normal connotations. Something which isn’t really surprising when dealing with a woman who has been trained to unflinchingly kill anyone, anytime, anyway. Her whole life one without common boundaries, lacking traditional moral limits, surrounded by people who believe as she does. Love merely a word without any real meaning to her. This trial really a journey — both literally and figuratively — of self-justification for her warped view of life. So, while the word “love” is thrown about, there really isn’t any real romance to be found here.
What can be found in Skullsworn is violence, action, and lots of killing — by assassins, crocs, spiders, and even less savory things. All of it conveyed beautifully by Brian Staveley’s wonderful, flowing prose. Many of the passages in this narrative memorable and immediately quotable. Where Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne showed the author’s ability to tame a sprawling epic, this more narrow, more personal, first person story shows Staveley at his best, creating a vivid setting in the hot, swampy Dombâng, while taking readers on a guided tour of the bizarre psyche of Pyrre, an acolyte of Death. The novel a textbook illustration of a fantasy author at the top of his game.
But somehow, someway, this amazingly written novel only received 2.5 stars rating. And I’m certain that puzzles many of you. The reason is fairly simple, however: Pyrre.
As I always say, stories are all about characters for me. Mesmerizing magic, awe-inspiring worlds, and pulse-pounding plots only take a book so far. Eventually, it all comes down to whether I connect with the characters. If I love them or love-to-hate them, then what happens matters to me, causes me to keep turning the pages, desperate to find out what transpires next. However, when I don’t care about the characters or outright loath them, then it doesn’t matter to me if they succeed or fail, live or die. And, unfortunately, Pyrre was someone I didn’t care about, at all.
Now, to be completely transparent, I have to admit I was concerned about this reaction when I picked up Skullsworn. Unlike so many other readers of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, I never cared much for Pyrre. Sure, she was deadly, mysterious, edgy. I still felt fairly “meh” about her. But in the trilogy it didn’t impact my enjoyment, because she was a minor character, surrounded by others whom I did come to deeply care about. Here, though, she is the narrator, the guide, the whole show. Every word, every thought, every philosophical musing on life, love, and whatnot filtered straight through her twisted mentality. And, frankly, her ideas and beliefs didn’t interest me very much, especially her final epiphany about the true nature of love, which made me dislike her even more than I had previously — even if it was very fitting for Pyrre’s personality.
For the simple reason that I disliked Pyrre, Skullsworn just wasn’t for me. It isn’t a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I would say Brian Staveley’s writing is superior here to that in Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne; his amazing weaving of action, mythology, and philosophical commentary spectacularly done, showing definite growth in his writing skill. Hopefully, others will be able to appreciate its fine qualities without being turned off by the main character. As for me I’ll pass on Pyrre but will definitely be reading Brian Staveley’s future offering.
I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.