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.
“I grew up in a place where women wear vests ribbed with stilettos,
where each priest has a dozen knives, steel traps,
needles so fine you can slide them beside the eye into the brain
and out again without leaving a mark.”
Pyrre Lakatur. If you’ve read the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series, this woman needs no introduction. For those of you who haven’t, please allow me to summarize: the cast of characters from that trilogy featured a slew of badasses so well-versed in battle and bloodshed that by the end of it, each of them became a myth unto themselves.
All of them were wary and more than a little in awe of Pyrre.
This is her origin story. And it’s everything I hoped it would be. In Skullsworn, she’s not yet a priestess of Ananshael, the god of death, but an acolyte, attempting her final and most difficult challenge: to kill the one she loves above all others.
She has just fourteen days to do it. Trouble is, she’s never been in love. And so, hoping to rekindle an old spark with a man she once felt something for, she and the priest and priestess serving as witnesses to her ordeal return to Dombâng, the city of her birth.
This barely-civilized backwater bayou brimming with distrust for the empire that conquered it is more than just a backdrop. Staveley’s powerful, poetic prose turns it into a character unto itself.
“Two hundred years earlier, Annurian trebuchets had pounded the northern quarter of the city into flaming oblivion…Dombâng was still burning, although the flames had been long since contained, tamed, caged in ten thousand stoves, torches, lanterns, the fire a servant once more. From atop the mountain, the whole labyrinthine expanse sprawled before us like a muddier, nearer echo of the stars.”
It is here that we learn of Pyrre’s humble beginnings. We’re shown the squat hovel where she was born. We meet the man, Ruc, son of a once great household, guardian of Dombâng, traitor to his people, that she intends to fall in love with.
Speaking of love, how do you define it? How does someone else? How do you know if you’re in it? Who can fairly judge that you are? You? Or another person? This book takes a really interesting, philosophical approach to the subject. The priest and priestess, Kossal and Ela, who accompany Pyrre aren’t just there to bear witness. They’re to act as judge and jury when her fourteen days are up. Only if they determine that she is in love when and if she manages to kill Ruc does she pass. If not, she’ll be found unfit to serve as priestess to Ananshael, and they’ll give her to their god.
I just…loved this book. Loved every damn thing about it, really. The take on love, the subtle, satirical jabs at fantasy genre cliches, the inclusiveness, the diversity, the feminist themes, the age, body, and sex-positivity, the macabe sense of humor that permeated the pages:
How much could a man love a woman, after all, if he wasn’t a little worried she might kill him?
Skullsworn is just as intricately plotted and masterfully told as Staveley’s other works. Having read him before, I knew better than to try and guess the outcome, or anticipate the twists, because I’ve learned through experience that I’ll never be right.
Though this book comes to a neat ending, it still left me desperately hungry for more. Unlike The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, this is told in first person perspective. I got so caught up in Pyrre’s mind that I’m suffering some serious book withdrawal now that I’m finished. Her origin story is not enough.
I NEED HER WHOLE GODDAMN LIFE.
The good news for those of you unacquainted with the other books set in this world is that this can function as a standalone. I highly recommend it for anyone fed up with the repetitive themes in the fantasy genre. And especially for those fed up with the portrayal of women in the fantasy genre. This book and those few of its ilk are the future, and I cannot fucking wait for the day when more men and women write as progressively as Staveley.
For this and everything else I’ve mentioned, it goes on the “will re-read until I die” shelf.