Skullsworn, Brian Staveley (Tor 978-0-7653-8987-9, $27.99, 318pp, hc) April 2017. Cover by Richard Anderson.
Brian Staveley’s Unhewn Throne trilogy followed separate plotlines for three royal siblings in tomes as massive as classic epic fantasy, yet with a very different tone, spiced with X-rated language and bad attitude. Though Skullsworn is just as brash, and takes place in the same world – where long-lived, almost godlike beings ruled ancient empires that clashed then vanished into realms of myth as humans took over – it leaps ahead in time, perhaps by centuries, and has little to say about those beings (until disaster strikes, midway through the book).
First-person narrator Pyrre Lakatur may lack those earlier protagonists’ uncanny links to magic, but she displays plenty of attitude, angst, and passion for her god during a crucial Trial – a rite of passage when she’s 25. Well trained by assassin-priests serving the god of Death, Pyrre decides to undergo the test in Dombâng, the steaming tropical city where she spent her early years as a ‘‘canal urchin.’’ To succeed, she must kill seven people in fourteen days – one victim a person she loves. Like sexually active twenty-somethings anywhere, Pyrre still isn’t sure she can feel deeper emotion, but challenges herself with a man from an old affair. When she left him, Ruc Lan Lac was a roving pugilist in another town. Here in Dombâng, he commands the Greenshirts: imperial guards charged with maintaining order in a colony still restless, centuries after conquest.
Pyrre has two Witnesses, former mentors whose alternating secret watch on the murders leaves them with time to pursue their own interests. In the lusty prime of life, Ela cuts a swath through handsome local males, plus a few females, while she regards her protégée’s worries about true love as dismal in one so young. Crusty older Kossal would rather track down rumors of gods or monsters lurking in the deadly swamps around the city. He gets his chance when Pyrre (now back in Ruc Lan Lac’s good graces) goes with the Greenshirts to investigate a grisly boatload of massacre victims, stranded in swampland.
Over the course of killings and adventures, Skullsworn explores deeper issues – love and death, humanity and Other – without becoming ponderously profound, thanks to the heroine’s slum argot and raw memories, and her Witnesses’ gritty voices of experience. Stavely pulls it all off with style.