Skullsworn by Brian Staveley

I make no bones about announcing that Brian Staveley is my go-to-author when it comes to reading some seriously crunch-worthy fantasy books, that are original, thought-provokingly jarring ( and I mean like bone-deep!) and swathed in enough grim-dark to keep it dialed way beyond 'just interesting' for me. His first series, that started with The Emperor's Blades was suitably epic but didn't exactly set things on fire. But the amazing follow up in the next couple of books, really blew things over in a true-blue kettral-style explosion, concluding a fantasy series in one of the best possible manners.

His writing is modern in it's sensibilities. With the first series books that feature an expansively rich world with a hefty twist to it's history, epic in it's sheer scale (Gods, men both mortal and immortal, empires clashing and the world balanced on a knife's edge), we knew there were more stories lurking in the depth of this beautiful world.

And so came Skullsworn!

Frankly when Brian wrote back in an email about this secret project on this side-character ( I was just learning back to 'breathe' normally after having gone all-cardiac-arrest-mode-excited about The Last Mortal Bond conclusion) I was super thrilled and now that I've read the book, I must say - It's perfection in book-form.

A standalone in this universe, focused on a side-character from the series called Pyrre - a priestess of an order that worships Anaenshael, the God of death. The events in this book, however, document the story of how this suave, smooth-talking and self-assured assassin became what she is, a Priestess of the order. So it is set in a time-frame ahead of what happens in the Unhewn Throne series. To ascend to the level of a true priestess, the acolytes in the order are supposed to undergo the ultimate trial set by their God, in which they are asked to perform seven killings, each presaging a certain condition. The last one, being the cruelest - a sacrifice of your true love, to the God she worshiped proving her fealty to the order and thus becoming a true priestess of death.

So yes, while it is cruel for Pyrre, the predicament that bothers her is not the act of killing a true love itself but it's the preset condition of having to fall in love, before she offered her sacrifice. Because while she has had several physical relationships, she has never fallen in love. It's a feeling she's never got the hang for.

"Could that sickness in my gut be love? It seemed unlikely, but that's the trouble. Love is not like the things of the world - Trees, sky, fire - to which you can point and affix a name. "

For the purpose of making sure Pyrre goes through with the trial, Pyrre is assigned her chosen witnesses, Ela and Kossal. A most delightful pair of priest and priestess of the skullsworn order who form pivotal characters in this 'love' story that pulsates (A bright flame of explosion whenever Ela enters the frame!) and withdraws into itself, in those quiet moments of reverent solitude and meditative reflection as Pyrre seeks to understand her violent world. Pyrre and her witnesses proceed to this riverside city of Dombang, a city conquered by the Annurian Empire (Long live the Malkeenians!) - the city of her birth, a squalid dangerous and desperate city poised on a tightrope as the seething natives are plotting a revolution against their rulers. Dombang also happens to a place from where Pyrre escaped and made her way to the solitary mountains of Anansumbor for her training to become one of Ananshael's priestess. So while the choice of Dombang is deliberate, Pyrre is also set on her goal of offering the sacrifices to her God and plans to seek out a former 'lover' and friend, Ruc Lac Lan, now the commander of the city's garrison of soldiers locally known as Greenshirts entrusted with keeping the peace. But as the days progress, bodies pile up and the revolution looms large, Pyrre and her friends are drawn into a much more larger wheel set in motion, ages ago as older legacies and demons from Pyrre's scarred mysterious childhood come back to haunt her.

So while yes, this book is about the trial for Ananshael's acceptance, we would expect this one to be exceptionally dark - littered with dead bodies and blood as the sacrifices to the God of Death fall in line. But it's actually not. Believe it or not, it's about love - Goddess Eira and her blessings. In a weird and twisted manner, its about Pyrre accepting and understanding the concept of love. Of how her character goes through a massive change of personality. From being riddled with doubt about her devotion and piety to quiet acceptance and a heightened understanding of her God's ways in the world and more. It's a first person narrative, from Pyrre's point of view and hence, we are subjected to the tsunami of doubts and fear that plagues the young acolyte's minds. This Pyrre is a far-cry from the cold, smiling cocky assassin we've seen in the earlier series. And Brian's turn of prose, ah so lovely and rich, makes us go through those layers and layers in her personality as she molts through these uncertainties in her life, to attain a higher truth about herself and the world around her.  She is undoubtedly the star of the tense narrative but Brian has always had this knack of writing the best secondary characters. True here, as well.

I think I am in love with Ela - the smiling, seductive and absolutely deadly priestess who seems insatiable with her appetite for sex, the grace and enigma in her teachings about love and death to Pyrre ( One of my favorite scenes from the book is this! Goosebumps!!) and that glib silver-coated tongue of hers that is at once, entertaining and deadly. Kossal, the seemingly grumpy old priest who is terse with his words but is the picture of ultimate devotion to his cause for Ananshael is also an enigma and it's a pleasure to watch the depths of this character unfold across the pages. Ruc, the troubled commander in charge of the city is also brilliant - in his own way, the honest duty that defines his character and his earnest straightforward, almost brusque manner of dealing with prophecies and revolt alike - in an efficient and practical manner would no doubt, endear to the readers. He is the tragic hero, the man every girl would pine for.

The book is doubtless one of my best reads in 2017 till now. The depth of the characters, the emotional heft that matches the adrenaline surges makes it a book that punches way beyond its weight. The writing is beautiful - those quiet moments of soliloquy that helps clear Pyrre's mind and the mysterious city of Dombang with it's lethal delta crawling with death in every shadowed corner comes alive in Brian's lovely turn of phrase. Have no fear, there are action scenes aplenty in there - in fact the very beginning of the book features a collapsing bridge and a frenzied fight in the roiling muck of the dangerous river delta - and this sets the pulses racing right off the bat. We settle, long breathing moments in between these manic moments of action as Pyrre sets out to pass her trial, in a manner befitting a priestess of death, an assassin.

As Pyrre sheds her inhibitions and doubts - and grows into her own, we know this molting process is painful and yes, it involves death. But this is death and love balanced against each other in a crumbling world fraught with dangers and prophecies that seems to come alive - of forgotten Gods come alive, of love and friendships tested to their last limits and of love, soaked up and thoroughly realized. Skullsworn is that  small tiara among Brian's acclaimed works, that I daresay shines the brightest. A very accessible work that introduces a new reader into this complex world where wheels set in motion by Gods eons ago, still wreck havoc among mortal lives. It is at once intimate and gloriously epic in it's treatment of it's universal subject : Love and Death, entwined close together. A must-read for fans of Brian and any true-blue lover of this genre. 


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