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.