Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer–she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.
The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has fourteen days to kill the seven people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one you love / who will not come again.”
Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.
Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love… and ending it on the edge of her sword.
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Let me just start off by saying Skullsworn is one of the best and most well-written stories I have ever read. Last year, shortly after finishing up The Last Mortal Bond, book three in Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, I made sure to order this book right away as a follow-up, because I fell in love with the world he created. Somehow, it got buried under the stacks and sadly abandoned – I cannot tell you how much I regret allowing this to happen, because this book is absolutely magnificent.
Skullsworn is a standalone novel set in the same universe as and taking place before the events of the original trilogy. While the trilogy was epic in scope, this is a very humble and personal tale recounted by Pyrre Lakatur, acolyte of Ananshael, God of Death. She invites us along as she embarks on her journey to complete a trial to become a Priestess, a trial in which she must give seven people to the god in fourteen days, including one that “makes her heart sing with love”. With the fear that she is incapable of loving or being loved, Pyrre returns to Dombâng, the city of her childhood, in order to complete her task with one man in mind. Her arrival in the city heralds the chaos to come, as she intends to incite a revolution to get closer to her target. The result is a story filled with blood, sacrifice, old gods and striking revelations.
This book is crushingly beautiful and emotional and tragic. It is an in-depth exploration into the fine lines that separate life, death and truly living, with an underlying theme that both love and death are very much analogous and all-consuming. Although the tale is told through the eyes of a killer, you can’t help but find charm and grace in the ways events transpire and how they are resolved. Staveley’s eloquent and poetic prose only add to the allure. His use of stunning metaphors throughout drive hard the points he is attempting to portray.
I’ve always thought it strange that so much of the world remains unbroken. Take something as simple as a clay cup. So much time and effort goes into the making – the quarrying of the clay, the spinning on the wheel, the glazing, the firing, the painting – and yet it takes only a moment to destroy. No malign intent required, no violent design, just a moment’s inattention, a careless elbow, fingers too slick with wine, and the vessel drops, lands wrong, shatters. Most things are like this.
In this instance, he continues on to describe the fragility of human life and the encompassing world in which it dwells. At times it feels this story is less a fantasy story about woman’s devotion to her faith and more a philosophical work – it’s amazing and extremely pleasing.
The author has crafted a group of wonderfully three-dimensional, flawed characters, each that seem larger than life at first glance, but somehow remain human and completely relatable as the story progresses. Pyrre, disciple of the God of Death, capable of killing a person in any number of ways, yet vulnerable, with deep emotions she attempts to hide away, and afraid to let herself love another. Ela and Kossal, Priests of Ananshael and witnesses of Pyrre’s trial, who couldn’t be more different from one another, but in the end, fit so perfectly together in such an organic way it made me cry. Ruc Lan Loc, hardened bare-knuckle fighter and highly-effective military commander, who cries during musical performances and cares ferociously for his city. The hushed whispers of the Gods of the Delta simmer throughout the entire story, and fortunately I didn’t connect the dots, because the reveal sent shivers down my spine.
The worldbuilding is in a league of its own. The history is so rich, the religions so well-defined, the environments so vividly painted. While reading, you can almost feel sweat beading on your forehead and grit under your fingernails as you traverse your way through the humid delta. You can sense the tension and hostility within the city walls and the brutality of the surrounding areas. You can see the beauty of delta violets against the drab mud. Reading this book is an experience, and one I so rarely encounter in any genre.
I can continue to gush about this book all day, but nothing I say will properly give it the justice it deserves. You’ll just have to read it yourself! Whether you’re a newcomer or already a fan of Staveley’s work, this is one you definitely need to read – in my opinion, his best work to date. I’m really hoping to read more in this world sometime in the near future.