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Skullsworn by Brian Staveley

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.

When it comes to the genre fiction there are a heck of a lot of fantasy books about assassins aren’t there? Seems to be a bit of a staple now that I think about it. It works for me; assassin’s lives are far from dull and make for perfect fantasy fodder. With so many fictional killers out there, any new novel has to have a great hook for me to take notice. The good news is that Skullsworn, the latest from Brian Staveley, has exactly that.

The thing that struck me straight away is the wonderfully evocative quality to Brian Staveley’s writing. When he describes the city of Dombâng, its streets and inhabitants, you get a real sense of all the individual lives colliding with one another. This city is far more than just a crossroads for the rest of the world; it is also a hotbed of religious and political intrigue. Exactly the sort of place a young, aspiring priestess/assassin can complete her years of training.

For a person who has spent almost her entire life training to be a killer there is a refreshing uncertainty to Pyrre. She is quite happy to kill, she has accepted that, but she is unsure on how exactly to live. Having spent her formative years sequestered away in the mountains learning her trade, she is in many respects an innocent. The big city, even though it was where she was born, is alien to her.

The dynamic of the relationship Pyrre has with her potential love interest/victim, Ruc Lan Lac, is great fun. Ruc is the commander of the Greenshirts, Dombâng’s de-facto police force, and the two have a shared history that is revealed as the story unfolds. Staveley perfectly captures the tentative nature of this relationship. Every conversation between Ruc and Pyrre can be read in two ways. You can take what each says at face value, or you can read between the lines. Pyrre and Ruc fight and bicker but you can also pick up on the underlying bond that is developing. It puts Pyrre in an increasingly difficult position. Can she complete her trial when Ruc remains suspicious of her motivations?

The other key relationships are between Pyrre and her tutors, Kossal and Ela. At first glance, these two appear to be little more than an old lush and an insatiable sexpot respectively. Of course, there is far more to Pyrre’s mentors than that. I liked the relationship between Pyrre and Ruc, but I loved the relationship between Kossal and Ela. There are a handful of moments when both manage to not only completely steal a scene but nearly escape with the entire plot to boot. Some of the snark on display is first class. I wonder if we ask Brian Staveley nicely he would write a book about some of their earlier exploits? I’d buy it tomorrow.

Seeing as we are firmly in the realms of assassins and the God of Death, it seems reasonable that the musical recommendation that accompanies this book adequately captures that cat and mouse sense of urgency that being a death dealer always seems to entail. The soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed II by Jesper Kydd fits this description perfectly. Makes sense that one assassin’s life should complement another’s I suppose.

The plot whips along at a good pace. Pyrre is on a very specific timescale so there is no time to hanging about. Events build to a satisfyingly bloody climax. All this comes together to create an absolutely brilliant tale.  I’ll end with an admission, I’ve never read any of Brian Staveley’s other novels. It appears after a quick check on Amazon that there is a trilogy already available that is also set in the Annurian Empire. Based on how much I enjoyed Skullsworn I think I’ll have to give them a go in the very near future. Oooh, I’ve just thought, perhaps Kossal and Ela appear in those books. That would be great.

Skullsworn is published by Tor and is available from 20th April. Highly recommended.


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