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Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
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Skullsworn is the origin story of Pyrre, a character from The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Having read this before the main trilogy, I can safely say it stands on its own. The characters occasionally mention some history of the world that may be explained better in the series, but it's easy to understand the goings on of the setting: The city of Dombang was conquered by the empire two centuries ago, but there remains a sizable faction that wants Dombang to again be free. The local Dombang religion that worships the gods of the delta has been banned, which creates further resentment toward the empire.

Pyrre has come here to complete her final trial to become a priestess of Ananshael, the God of Death. For her trial, the two witnesses who accompany her sing a song listing the targets she must kill. She must kill every target within two weeks, and must not kill anyone else. Should she fail, the witnesses will kill her. Easy enough for Pyrre except for one: one of the targets is someone she loves, but Pyrre has never loved anyone.

Pyrre and her witnesses, Ela and Kossal, are fun to read as they banter, discuss their faith and help Pyrre understand what it means to love and to follow Ananshael. While most people would see the the Skullsworn as little more than murderers, the Skullsworn understanding of death paints them as merciful. Ananshael's gift is the end of pain and suffering, one that is given to all without playing favorites. With this logic, they oppose torture and killing out of anger.

Pyrre puts together a plan to stir up a rebellion to get close to Ruc Lan Lac, a man she believes she can love. Pyrre feels conflicted about it every step of the way, since it is questionable if the love can be genuine with an ulterior motive.

The setting is well described, and feels like a part of a larger world. The delta is teeming with life, all fighting to thrive in a hostile environment. The people are no different, both those in Dombang and the Vuo Ton, a group of delta natives who shun the city that made people soft. The characters are fun to read, and interact with each other naturally. Everyone has a clear motivation behind their actions that move the plot forward. ( )
  Cerelin | Dec 24, 2018 |
Wow I just finished need to think about it for a bit. ( )
  Trevorsherman | Oct 25, 2017 |
(Originally reviewed at thelibraryladies.com.)

Readers first met Pyrre in Staveley’s debut trilogy, “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne,” the badass assassin whose religious order, the Skullsworn, worship the deity of death, Anashael. When I heard that he was writing a spin-off (prequel?) that centered around this character’s origin story, essentially, I was a bit skeptical. Sure, Pyrre was great in her supporting role, but she at times came across as unbeatable, and thus having no conflict, and, while we got into a few of the details of her religion in those first books, it also seemed like its seemingly callous philosophy would present a challenge to creating a sympathetic main character. But, lo and behold, this book blew me away, setting all of those concerns to rest and reminding me just how much I’ve been craving good, standalone fantasy fiction.

Death is at the center of the story. And if that sounds morbid, well, Pyrre, and Staveley, have much to say on the subject. We meet Pyrre at the cusp of her journey to become a full priestess of Anashael, wherein she must complete her final trial, killing ten types of individuals all listed in an ancient song of the order. She has a specific number of days to complete this, all overseen by two witnesses, the grumbly, but deadly Kossal, and the bright, complicated Ela. To do this, she returns to her childhood home of Dumbang.

Having already been introduced to this world, I was particularly thrilled with the setting of Dumbang for this story, a confusing maze of swamp, floating islands, and deadly creatures. The culture, history, and city itself all tied neatly into the greater world we are already familiar with, but were so unique that they stood alone as a completely new slice of this world. Reading this story, I could almost feel the heavy presence of this city, its beauty, its mystery, and the foreboding sense that people are treading where they should not. It perfectly mirrors the philosophy that Pyrre and the Skullsworn abide by: that death is inevitable and, in many ways, the most merciful part of life. Not something to be feared, but to be lived alongside.

The story itself is so compelling, mixing action with adventure, comedy with heartbreak, and neatly tying together the pieces of Pyrre’s life to perfectly illustrate how she came to be who she is and how she will continue to grow into the woman we meet in later stories. Kossal and Ela are great characters off whom Pyrre bounces, challenging her, and the reader, to expand her thinking on what it means to worship Anashael and to live a full life. Ela, specifically, was brilliant, jumping off the page and stealing every scene she was in. At first I was concerned that she was going to fall into a fairly established character type, all smooth sexuality and arrogant charm. But as the story continued, I began to have greater and greater hopes for her as a character and her ultimate role in the story. All of which were ultimately met, much to my joy and relief.

Bizarrely, Run Lan Lac, the man who Pyrre seeks out with the goal to love and to kill, was one of the weaker characters for me. But, given the overall commentary on love and death, upon further reflection, I’ve almost come to feel that this might have been intentional? He plays his role, and I was glad to see that his character remained true throughout all the revelations of the story.

Towards the end, the plot takes a massive leap out into the greater mythology of the world. And, while I have read the original trilogy which lent these reveals some interesting added perspectives, the story itself remained contained within its own pages, and I feel that it is still approachable for new readers even with this more expansive later plotline.

I can’t say enough about the strength of Staveley’s writing. As I said earlier, there were so many challenges he gave himself with the premise of this story. A main character who worships death and kills people with few qualms who must be made into a sympathetic and appealing leading lady. A new setting with a complex history that must still fit within the constraints of a previously built world. Multiple religions with a variety of gods, some familiar from previous books, some new. All while trying to create a standalone novel that is approachable to new readers, but also familiar and appropriately laying the groundwork for a character known to readers of the original series. He not only does all of this, but the book was laugh-out-loud funny at parts and had me on the brink of tears at others. Staveley is quickly climbing the ranks of “must read” fantasy authors. ( )
  thelibraryladies | Sep 15, 2017 |
Review from Tenacious Reader: http://www.tenaciousreader.com/2017/04/10/review-skullsworn-by-brian-staveley/

As much as I loved the Unhewn Throne trilogy, Skullsworn has taken seat for my favorite of Staveley’s book. One thing Staveley did well in Unhewn Throne was create fascinating secondary characters that you wish had more page time, and even without knowing everything about them, you just love them. Well, Staveley has now proven he can take one of those intriguing secondary characters and create a very rich and full story that makes you understand and appreciate the character on a whole other level.

Pyrre stood out in Unhewn Throne as one of those intriguing secondary characters that really added to my enjoyment of the series. This book is the story of her trial to become a priestess of Ananshael, the God of Death and really gives us an amazing background on her to understand how she became the character we met earlier.

One would expect her trial to be full of death (which, it was), but it is love, not death, that really takes the spotlight. To complete her trial, Pyrre must take the life of someone she loves. Problem is, Pyrre can’t think of anyone that would qualify. So within the short span of her trial, she must both find love and do so knowing that there is an ulterior motive and a not so happy ending for the relationship. One has to wonder if it is possible to find love under these circumstances. And while the rest of us are wondering how she could kill them if she does love them, well, you have to understand they see “sending someone to their god” as a mercy or gift, not as violence or murder. Her perspective on death is so incredibly different from how we normally think. But through the course of this book, I came to really understand her and how she sees the world. For Pyrre, this is not unthinkable on the level one might expect, and yet she still comes across as quite humanized and someone you want to root for.

The prose in this book seemed to be a step above his earlier books as well. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed his other books, but I never really considered prose a strength. I would find myself reacting not to just what Staveley was saying, but how he was saying it. I would think “wow, I love that description”. I honestly don’t remember noticing this in his other books, but I found myself just really impressed with his word choices, descriptions and the general flow. I enjoyed not just the entire story, but also how it was told.

While this book is told from Pyrre’s perspective, it is told in both a current timeline as well as flashbacks. These flashbacks increased our understanding of Pyrre and how she came to serve her God. They were integrated with the current day events very well, keeping the pace going and holding my interest just as easily as the current timeline.

Also adding to my enjoyment of this book were Pyrre’s companions. Like I said earlier, Staveley does secondary characters very well, and this book is no exception. Pick one at random, and I would love a book dedicated to them.

So, yes, as much as I enjoyed The Unhewn Throne, Skullsworn is now favorite of Staveley’s books. It is as exciting and fascinating as Pyrre herself. Perhaps it just struck my mood, but I loved getting a single perspective and just immersing in Pyrre’s character. It just felt like a quicker and more gripping read to focus one her. And what a character she is! Even as a secondary character I found her interesting, but this book delivered more than I expected. Highly recommend, especially for fans of female characters that like to kick ass and not always follow the rules.

( )
  tenaciousreader | Aug 8, 2017 |
“’If I wanted you dead, you would be dead’?” He sucked some blood from between his teeth, then spat it onto the cobbles. “What is that? A line from some mid-century melodrama? You hear that onstage a few nights ago?”

In “Skullsworn” by Brian Staveley

Reasons to avoid some Fantasy:

1. Trilogies - a story seldom needs 3 volumes, nobody wants to read the 'excluded middle' of tosh, let alone wait for the third volume when they have forgotten the contents of the first - strike George R.R. Martin;

2. Sequel proliferation. Ditto objection 1 squared - strike Eddings et al;

3. Formulaic - It's often better to re-read Tolkien, skipping some of his embarrassing attempts at females than read the whole thing again with different silly names - strike all sorts of piffle;

4. Silly names - countries; cities; people. How about concepts; recipes; politics - invent something - move to include Iain M. Banks 'Culture' - or does invention have to belong to THE science fiction part of SF?

5. Written by die cast. Surely much is the product of hashish and D&D - this you can make up for yourself;

6. Poor writing - to wit the obviously much beloved Staveley - whilst his books were entertaining they are limited by his repetitive vocabulary; why can't his educated characters master the conditional subjunctive…?

One of the common failing of most fantasy fiction is that the morality and emotional conflict of the antagonists is never explored or it feels gimmicky. We get a lot of stuff wherein the good guys become less good, and the bad guys stay smart-alecky. Characters tend to be stupid. It’s how an author can impart information to the reader that the character themselves haven’t picked up on yet. It’s also an engagement tactic: did you guess, right? May as well read the next chapter and find out, you stupid reader. What else? Ah yes. Strong romance...check, Romance the focus...check, World Without Plenty of magic...check, some clichés...check, Some semi-explicit stuff...check. All genres of books have many poor and average writers and some great ones - fantasy writing is just as good as any other kind of writing and the best fantasy provides some excellent analysis and criticism of reality as well as imagining coherent alternative realities and managing to be both funny at some points and gripping at others. I despair of so much fantasy fiction. There is a lot of landfill quality stuff out there; but also, too many multi-volume epics with formulaic plots. How many more times will that downtrodden turn out to be the heir to the kingdom? (feel free to substitute “ploughboy orphan” by “Assassin that has ten days to kill ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including ‘the one you love / who will not come again.’” or by any other input placeholder you wish).

I don't know why I bother reading crap like this. Staveley no more...

SF = Speculative Fiction. ( )
  antao | Jul 14, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0765389878, Hardcover)

Brian Staveley’s new standalone returns to the critically acclaimed Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne universe, following a priestess attempting to join the ranks of the God of Death.

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 ten days to kill the ten 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.

"A complex and richly detailed world filled with elite soldier-assassins, mystic warrior monks, serpentine politics, and ancient secrets." ―Library Journal, starred review, on The Emperor's Blades

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 10 Aug 2016 16:31:37 -0400)

Brian Staveley's new standalone returns to the critically acclaimed Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne universe, following a priestess-assassin for the God of Death. "Brilliant." -V. E. Schwab, New York Times bestselling author From the award-winning epic fantasy world of The Emperor's Blades Pyrre Lakatur is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer-she is a priestess. At least, she will be once she passes her final trial. The problem isn't the killing. The problem, rather, is love. For to complete her trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the seven people enumerated in an ancient song, including "the one who made your mind and body sing with love / who will not come again." Pyrre isn't sure she's ever been in love. And if she fails to find someone who can draw such passion from her, or fails to kill that someone, her order will give her to their god, the God of Death. Pyrre's not afraid to die, but she hates to fail, and so, as her trial is set to begin, she returns to the city of her birth in the hope of finding love . . . and ending it on the edge of her sword. "A complex and richly detailed world filled with elite soldier-assassins, mystic warrior monks, serpentine politics, and ancient secrets." -Library Journal , starred review, on The Emperor's Blades Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne The Emperor's Blades The Providence of Fire The Last Mortal Bond Other books in the world of the Unhewn Throne Skullsworn… (more)

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