Pyrre Lakatur is an acolyte of Ananshael, the God of Death. In order to become a priestess of Ananshael, Pyrre must pass a final trial. In fourteen days, she must kill 7 people, including the one she loves. Adept at killing people and ‘offering’ them to her god, this part of her trial is ironically the hardest for her. You see, Pyrre has never been in love.
Brian Staveley has been an author whose name I’ve seen pop up quite frequently. Thanks to the excitement around his Unhewn Throne trilogy, he was already on my radar before I heard of Skullsworn. I was going to read this trilogy first but when I heard of this standalone prequel, I decided to pick it up.
Prose and Worldbuilding
Staveley’s prose was a pleasant surprise. I remember listening to certain lines from the audiobook and wishing I had a physical copy so I could tab them. I loved his word choice and sentence structures and he was able to paint me a world that I not only saw very vividly but one I also felt. I could feel the darkness and the rot, the violence and the blood, and I almost lived Pyrre’s life with her as she told it.
Skullsworn is written if the first person POV and it worked perfectly for this story. Pyrre’s devotion to Ananshael, her views on death and killing, and her struggle in trying to define what love is, was strongly conveyed through her narrative. I don’t think Pyrre was necessarily written to be liked though. Her determination to achieve her goals doesn’t necessarily take other people’s lives into consideration. When it comes to killing, Pyrre’s beliefs are far from conventional. To Pyrre, killing is an act of worship.
I also have to hand it to Staveley for writing secondary characters with such distinct personalities. Pyrre is trailed by Ela and Kossal, a priestess and a priest tasked to witness her progress with her trial. On the surface, Ela is a sex-loving, rule-bending priestess who is either often found dancing/drinking the night away while flirting or eyeing a potential bedmate. Put her in a fight or have her swim with crocs though, and she’s one heck of an assassin. Kossal, on the other hand is like a blunt uncle who speaks what’s on his mind regardless of who’s listening. He also keeps busy with playing his flute to restrain himself from killing annoying people, i.e. Ela the majority of the time (he was my favourite). There’s also Ruc Lan Lac, Pyrre’s ‘romantic’ target. He’s a military commander who was suspicious of Pyrre’s intentions and had a tendency to question everything. I basically adored his cynicism.
Tension and (the lack of) Romance
I’m a big fan of books that typically have no romance or ones that do it very well. I didn’t realize how much the topic of love would be brought up in this book and I was quite wary of it but thankfully it was more about her internal struggle of trying to understand/define what love is versus pining for Ruc. Any interactions with Ruc was also blessedly entertaining. The sexual tension was high, the banter had bite, and while I wasn’t really all for the idea of them together, I couldn’t stop reading.
So I liked it but…
As much as I enjoyed Skullsworn I also felt that the amount of nudity/sex wasn’t completely necessary to the plot. There were descriptions that got a bit tedious and repetitive, and I could probably have a tally of how many times Ruc’s hair/eye colour/toned body were mentioned. While this isn’t exactly a big deal, it did take me away from the story.
I also didn’t find myself caring about the characters. I was interested enough and I liked their interactions with one another but I just couldn’t connect with any of them. I also didn’t buy Pyrre’s drive/motivation in becoming a priestess. The lack of internal conflict she had with killing people was also disturbing. Again, I can see how this may be done on purpose and that it’s not meant to be liked, but I just couldn’t get behind it. There was also a limited amount of character development in Pyrre. I liked watching her views on love change as we moved on in the story but when it came to facing the fact that she’s a murderer and killing the person she loves is not love, she simply argues that she’s a follower of Ananshael. From beginning to end she saw nothing wrong with taking lives and it made her quite shallow and annoying for me.
Skullsworn had a great start and a great ending, worthy of a 4-star rating. The middle was a solid 3, so I guess that leaves us with a 3.5 average. I also highly recommend listening to the audiobook because Elizabeth Knowelden was an excellent narrator. I’d still like to read Staveley’s trilogy (specially for his worldbuiding) but I hope to see more character depth in his series.