Deadly Peril Done Right: Brian Staveley’s Skullsworn

You’ve probably noticed that there’s been some massive buzz about this bloke called Brian Staveley since the release of his debut, The Emperor’s Blades, in 2014. If you’re already a die-hard fan, it goes without saying that you’ll devour Skullsworn in mere days. If you’re anything like me—i.e. liked but didn’t love Staveley’s debut—then I can wholeheartedly recommend Skullsworn as the perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with his work.

Set in the same secondary world as The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne yet featuring an entirely new cast, Skullsworn is a win/win for fans, doubters, holdouts, and newbies alike; as a standalone, it’s an ideal entry point to Staveley’s work. Furthermore, the focused first-person POV makes for a much more intimate and sympathetic reader/protagonist relationship than the multiple characters of the Unhewn Throne allowed. I’d even venture so far as to say that readers who found themselves frustrated with aspects of Staveley’s earlier series will be pleased to learn that Pyrre, the protagonist, is everything that Adare was not.

Skullsworn introduces Pyrre with a framing narrative, which takes the form of a letter. In this letter, the reader is immediately brought up to speed on the titular Skullsworn by way of introducing, then dispelling, some of the outrageous myths that surround them:

I don’t swear on skulls, not on them, not to them, not around them. I haven’t seen a skull for years, in fact. A bit of blood-smeared bone through a torn-open scalp, perhaps, but an actual skull, wide-eyed and jawless? What in the god’s name would I be doing with a skull?

Not only is this a clever means for the author to avoid infodumps and clunky exposition, it also gives us an idea of exactly who our narrator is.

I have never fucked a dead person. I’m not sure who’s going around sizing up the erections of the hanged, but I can promise you, it’s not me. Most men are confused enough in bed already without the added disadvantage of death to slow them down.

Staveley really nails these opening pages. Pyrre’s voice is frank, humorous, and absolutely unafraid; though readers should be aware that past-Pyrre (i.e. the narrator of the main part of the story) is slightly more serious than the almost irreverent Pyrre who directly addresses her audience at beginning and end. Naturally this means that the tone is slightly different, but it is no less engaging—particularly since the main narrative has a small supporting cast who play off each other wonderfully.

I leaned over the table. “Insurrection.”

Ela blinked. “Is that a sexual position?”

“It is the cliff on the edge of which Dombâng has been teetering for decades.”

“Teetering. How tedious.”

“It will be a lot less tedious after we give it a shove.”

“We?” Ela cocked her head to the side. “I came for the dresses and the dancing, remember?”

“You can wear a nice dress to the revolution.”

“Any excuse for a party.”

 After just a few pages, I was damn sure that Ela’s persona—which initially put me in mind of Isabela, the pirate from Dragon Age II—would soon drive me up the wall. However, her interactions with Pyrre (and just about everyone else) are never less than charming; they are, in fact, some of the most entertaining parts of the story.

Ela cocked her head to the side. “I’m a little unclear on the details. Were we supposed to massacre everyone last night? Because if that was the plan, I would have done less dancing and had less sex.”

It quickly becomes clear that Ela exaggerates her deceptively shallow, Daisy Buchanan-esque exterior in order to mask deadly skills and resourcefulness that would put Black Widow and Lara Croft both to shame. In short, Ela is a perfect counterpoint to Pyrre’s seriousness, and provides levity amidst Pyrre’s single-minded focus on her trial.

Pyrre’s other companions are an equally effective study in contrasts, with Kossal’s age and taciturnity making him a perfect partner for a double-act with Ela. Though the reader at times shares Pyrre’s frustration with this seemingly unhelpful pair of Witnesses, we’re also able to appreciate the variety in characterization and temperament created by Ela’s light-heartedness and Kossal’s brusqueness. Similarly, we can see what Pyrre can’t: that Pyrre is fooling herself by projecting false emotions onto Commander Ruc Lan Lac in a desperate attempt to fulfil the conditions of her trial. This makes the reader feel like part of the group but also outside it—which gives us a separate (and somewhat smug) perspective on events as they unfold.

Skullsworn’s protagonists are excellent. Everyone knows, though, that all heroes need a villain: without Voldemort, there’d be no Harry Potter; without Sauron, we would never have had Frodo. There can be no Light without Dark; heroes need an Enemy, an opposite number, an antithesis, one that poses unique challenges and— most importantly—forces them to confront their inner demons along the way to the final showdown. There must also be a journey, physical as well as personal: Frodo to Mordor, Harry to and through Hogwarts, Pyrre to Dombâng. What makes Skullsworn special is that Pyrre’s antagonist is the city of Dombâng.

As entropic as it is dangerous, Dombâng is Pyrre’s childhood home. Lethal fauna and shady cults aside, her memories of the place are, by far, the thing she fears the most. The claustrophobic sense that the setting itself is a near-sentient threat lends a thrilling undercurrent of menace to events, especially given that the reader experiences them through Pyrre’s limited perspective. Our protagonist’s childhood home is wild—brutal, even; the city proper as much as the swampy delta itself.

As far as I’m concerned, Skullsworn’s setting is the real show-stealer here. The vivid sensory imagery used to describe Pyrre’s ordeals in the delta makes me long for an entire trilogy set in gorgeous, deadly Dombâng. Sure, it’s filled with the stuff of nightmares, but who doesn’t find that sort of thing morbidly fascinating? I’m reminded of an article I read last year (Creatures of the Deep: Why I’m Addicted to My Biggest Fear,” by Nate Crowley, here on Tor.com) in that this weird allure is the same reason I’m drawn to watching documentaries about spider bites or vampire bats; the same reason, moreover, that my favourite parts of Marc Turner’s and Scott Lynch’s novels are the bits that feature sea monsters and underwater boneyards, bottomless trenches and people getting eaten by sharks. This type of fascination is the reason why the Dombâng delta kept me reading Skullsworn each night, long after I should have been asleep.

Setting, tone, atmosphere, voice—there are so many aspects of Skullsworn that leap out, so many breathtaking descriptions and new ideas that allowed this book to surprise and excite me in a way The Emperor’s Blades never quite could. Staveley’s narrative voice feels more confident, more assured; he ventures into new depths of storytelling, pulling forth moments of wit and observation that Mark Lawrence would be proud to have written (in fact, Pyrre would fit right in at Red Sister’s Convent of Sweet Mercy!)

Truth is like a snake. If you’re vigilant, you can keep it caged. If you’re brave, you can set it free. Only an idiot, however, lets half of it out hoping to keep the rest penned in.

Finally,I should note that Staveley manages to pull off an unpredictable ending (astonishing, considering that the entire book seems to be building to a very limited set of potential conclusions), one which caught me off guard with its unexpected poignancy.

All that’s left to say—apart from “Ananshael guide your steps to the nearest bookstore to BUY THIS BOOK”—is “never them.”

While this may not mean much if you haven’t read the book yet, I promise that it will not fail to resonate with you once you’ve become immersed in the tale:

Never them.

Skullsworn is available from Tor Books.
Read en excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com.

Laura M. Hughes is Fantasy-Faction’s assistant editor. She lives with her husband and three cats beneath the grey, pigeon-filled skies of Rochdale, northern England. When she isn’t absorbed in playing Dragon Age or working on her first novel, you’re most likely to find her trying to convince unsuspecting bystanders to read The Malazan Book of the Fallen. She encourages like-minded folk to seek her out on Twitter @halfstrungharp, and to maybe have a gander at her horror-fantasy novelette, Danse Macabre, on Amazon.

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