I feel confident in making that statement because I really enjoyed Skullsworn without any of the context the other books might have provided. The setting, characters, story, and world-building really are just that engaging. Honestly, if you told me that this was the only book in the series I would believe you because I could probably read just this book and feel satisfied.
Skullsworn follows a young woman named Pyrre who is on her way to becoming a priestess in a strange, deadly religion that worships the god of death, Ananshael. This is a religion (whose members are known as Skullsworn) that kills indiscriminately and sees murder and assassination as offerings showing their true devotion. Part of the training requires Pyrre to pass an ancient trial sung about and passed on through the generations. The trial calls for her kill seven people – including her true love – in just two weeks.
The problem is that Pyrre doesn’t really understand love.
Despite that, she has to go out into the world and not only fall in love but murder that person within a very short time period. Ruc Lan Lac was a soldier she met when she was younger and he’s probably the closest she’s ever come to loving someone. So she returns to Dombang, the city where she was born, to find him again — and, with any luck, love him and then kill him. It’s a strange set up for a book, sure. But while Pyrre’s motivations may be strange and her world unusual it all becomes very natural as you read along.
Staveley does an amazing job setting the stage for this story. From its gods and religion to its being conquered by a long-time occupying nation, Dombang becomes almost a real city. The way he describes not just the way the city looks but also its history really engages readers. It also helps them understand the people and culture, which come into play throughout the book. Revolution and religion, for example, are a big part of Pyrre’s story.
He also does a great job of explaining the insane devotion of Ananshael’s followers in a way that makes Pyrre’s trial at the very least understandable. I’m not really sure that even in a fantasy world like this I can say that indiscriminate murder on behalf of a god of death will ever be reasonable or justified. But readers learn a fair amount about the religion and spend considerable time with not just Pyrre but two other Skullsworn who are very different from Pyrre in pretty much every way. It’s a very complete religion – even if it’s tenants are pretty outrageous.
But while the religion is important and Pyrre’s mission largely guides the story, it’s not just a book about murder or forcing someone to fall in love with you. It’s more than that. It’s a book about characters and their relationships as they play out over the course of a couple weeks. Interspersed within is a political story taking place in the background alongside yet another, separate plot involving more supernatural elements.
Still, at it’s core it’s about the characters. It’s about Pyrre’s relationship with Ruc and her relationship with her fellow devotees. It’s about Pyrre coming to terms not just with her own feelings but also in part with the devastating past she tried to leave behind. There’s a lot going on in this book and it’s all woven together very intricately.
It’s actually impressive how well it all works – especially when you consider that this is a pretty short book for a high fantasy novel. It’s just over three hundred pages, meaning Staveley had to fit all of this into a pretty compact package. For the most part, he’s able to manage it pretty well because he’s got a good handle on pacing and prose.
Really, the only exception is the ending which felt incredibly rushed compared to the rest of the book. It’s not bad but the pacing does change abruptly. When you reach the last twenty pages you expect to still have fifty or so to go. So when it ends, it’s a little disappointing.
That said, the ending isn’t necessarily disappointing. It just feels rushed and maybe a little incomplete. Not knowing what happens in the original trilogy, I don’t know if it’s alluding to anything that happens in those books or not. The ending certainly feels like it’s setting the series up for something, but not necessarily the return of Pyrre (which apparently does happen at some point in those original books).
Still, if you’ve thought about checking out this series then don’t feel bad if you decide to read Skullsworn, which is obviously the most recent book, before going back to the others. It’s going to be a great read no matter what you might (or might not) know about the series already. And since it’s chronologically set before the original Unhewn Throne books, you might as well just read it first!