A Must-Read from One of Epic's Modern Masters
I was a fan of Brian Staveley’s Unhewn Throne series: epic in setting, plot, and character, it was everything good about epic fantasy.
Skullsworn is better.
Better setting—the strange, swampy no-man’s land and forgotten heretic city the book is set in is so vivid I remember the details of the red-scale fish lanterns they hang, months after reading the book. One of those settings so strong it becomes a character in itself, a reality all the other characters must deal with.
Better plot--The Unhewn Throne was epic, and often surprising, but Skullsworn twists and turns its way through a mystery that starts political and ends supernatural, a main character good at everything but the one thing she must do to win (love), multiple characters with motives hidden from each other in important ways, ancient bayou cults… every detail about the story feels carefully crafted and polished, in a way only someone with a series as epic as The Unhewn Throne could manage.
Better characters—Staveley could rightly be accused at times of not doing female characters justice in his main series. Not so here—the main POV, beloved side character and death priestess Pyrre, is a badass in her own right, who must learn to do the one thing she never has, in twelve days’ time, as part of a larger and more difficult trial to finally become a full priestess. She starts a revolution to do it—but the real story is her internal revolutions, trying to get past a lifetime of neither loving nor being loved, and questioning the religion that has become the core of her being, in why it would demand this of her.
Because of course she has to kill the one she loves once she’s managed to love them—another part of the book’s brilliant design.
I could go on, but let me just hit a few more things that set Skullsworn apart from your average epic fantasy. One is religion—main characters these days are usually atheists, but Pyrre is passionately faithful to her religion, even if it feels quite alien to us, and never really questions it, even as it demands the impossible of her. It’s hard to make a religious character sympathetic to modern readers, but Staveley manages it handily. Another is turning the trope of revolution on its head: most epic fantasies involve revolution that boils down to political conflict over magic (see Lightbringer series, Stormlight Archive, Wheel of Time, etc.). Skullsworn involves a revolution sparked by a character in a quest to find love, and one fueled at its base not by magic but religion. It’s a new take on an old trope, and works wonderfully. Finally, the side characters: there are no throw-away, average-Joe healer-monk warrior-dwarf kind of spear carriers here. Pyrre’s companions, her enemies, her would-be lover, even the marks she casually kills along the way, every one of them pops from the page, unique and memorable and crackling with the terse, witty dialogue Staveley is known for.
Normally around this time I mention the parts of the book I didn’t like, or that didn’t work well, or could have been better. Next paragraph.
This is the best of epic fantasy condensed into a single non-chihuahua-killing novel. It doesn’t require the buy-in of a longer series, but still delivers everything we epic lovers look for. So whether you’re a deep fan of the genre or are curious without wanting to commit, I recommend Skullsworn without reservation.
Gender Empowered, Powerless, and Powerful
What if women had power? Not political power, or cultural capital, but the real, raw physical power that arguably put men ahead in most societies at the dawn of civilization and has kept them there since? It would be a global revolution—an idea Naomi Alderman explores with grace, humor, and grit in The Power. Packed with lovable characters, surprising action, and an unnervingly believable depiction of how our social structures could fall apart with one simple change, this is one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Framed with letters written in a future where women have all the power (in an apologetic, self-debasing tone I found instantly familiar—and totally foreign coming from a man), and structured as a countdown year by year, The Power is told through four points of view (including one token male) at four centers of power: government, religion, underworld, and media. Alderman deftly imagines how women low in each system would rise as females worldwide found the ability to physically intimidate men, and does it so believably that horror and giddy revolutionary zeal took turns gripping me as I read. Its title is apt: the stories are entirely about struggles for power, about ego and traditional gender power structures clashing with the new reality of this physical power women develop.
One of the things I love about the book is that it is not an escapist take back the power! kind of story, but a nuanced look at how this new power could (and likely would) be abused, in what ways women could take over the oppressive roles men once filled (including some awful scenes of sexual violence), and ends up a sort of cautionary tale (to say the least—avoiding spoilers) for how power will corrupt anyone, pushing us to think deeper about how it should be distributed and used in our own society.
If the book has one fault, it’s that it meanders at times. Four points of view can be a lot to manage, plus secondary characters, and the frame of going year by year toward some unknown end (that we begin to dread well before it becomes clear what it is) lends itself to individual story lines that at times meander more than they should. The strength of Alderman’s characters more than carries us through this.
So an enthusiastic 9.5 rating for The Power. Normally at the end of reviews we qualify them by saying ‘if you’re looking for this’ or ‘if you’re interested in that,’ but no need with this book. If you live in a world were genders are unequal, you will find this interesting. Unless you are ideologically lodged in your current gender role and don’t want to question it--in which case you probably should read this book. The Power is thought-provoking entertainment at its finest.