Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
Miles long, a wooden walkway provides the only safe crossing over a swamp inhabited by all manner of lethal denizens. Man-eating crocs, piranha schools, poisonous snakes, spiders that lay their eggs in human flesh – these and a hundred other monstrosities lurk beneath that murky water.
The walkway is the only thing standing between the swamp and the hundreds of regular people who travel across it each day. Glancing down – perhaps to slap at yet another pesky mosquito affixed to your sweating calf – through a gap in the boards you spot a hungry croc staring right back at you, mere yards away from your feet.
Imagine the trouser-filling terror when the entire walkway shifts beneath you; the stone-cold dread when you – and your fellow screaming travellers – feel that suddenly flimsy barrier lurch and creak. Picture those final, disbelieving moments – when the illusion of safety shatters in a sickening chorus of tearing wood – just before the treacherous construction tips you into the deadly swamp.
Something is rotten in the city of Dombâng.
So begins Skullsworn.
You’ve probably noticed that there’s been a massive song and dance 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.
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 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.
Preluding the dramatic opening I spoke about earlier, 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 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; 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 this 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 of 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 her seemingly unhelpful pair of Witnesses, we’re also able to appreciate the variety 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 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 (somewhat smug) perspective on events.
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. There must also be a journey, physical as well as personal. Frodo to Mordor, Harry to 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 are by far the thing she fears the most. That claustrophobic sense that the setting itself is a near-sentient threat lends a thrilling undercurrent 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.
You may have noticed that, as far as I’m concerned, the 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) in that this weird allure is the same reason I’ll watch 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. And it’s 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 meant this book excited me in a way The Emperor’s Blades never 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, 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’.
This review originally appeared on Tor.com on April 28, 2017.