Love on the Cutting Edge: An Interview with Brian Staveley, Author of "Skullsworn"

When we meet Pyrre Lakatur at the start of Skullsworn, it’s in the midst of a dilemma. She has never been in love, and has only ten days to find someone she truly loves. But this seemingly Sex and the City premise comes with a twist: When Pyrre finds someone to love, she plans to kill them. Pyrre is an assassin, dedicated to her god—and her god demands a Trial.

What Brian Staveley does with this already delightful premise is weave a tale replete with violence and sex, but also deep questioning about how we make our lives—and how we love. Rather than indulging in gore for its own sake, Skullsworn explores the most poignant of human experiences via the edge of a blade, demonstrating why Staveley is one of the foremost authors of epic fantasy in recent years. Here is a book with all the action and drama one could want, with the intellectual and emotional heft of a classic.

In this interview I talked with Brian about the challenges of writing an assassin protagonist, his plans for the vast world he’s created...and careful readers will spot a hint about which character will feature in his next book.

So why Pyrre? What drew you to her origin story?

Pyrre embodies an odd combination of lethality and delight. In a world filled with so much suffering (some of it occasioned by her own murderous actions), she’s one of the only characters in the original trilogy who seems to be consistently happy. Actually, happy is too light a word—Pyrre of the Unhewn Throne books is joyful; even when the world is burning down around her, she can find the beauty and humor in that world. A lot of fans had questions about her, and I realized that I did, too—I wanted to understand how she became such a joyful assassin.

After the massive Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, Skullsworn with its single viewpoint character seems compact. What was it like to go from one format to the other? Are we likely to see more standalone novels from you?

The trickiest thing was shifting from third to first person. Pyrre’s voice in the trilogy was almost effortless for me to write, but writing dialogue is a long stretch from the extended monologue of a first-person narrative. For one thing, there’s the tension between the narrative voice (Pyrre telling the story from a remove of many years) and the character’s voice (Pyrre in the moment of the story). Those are obviously going to be different—the difference is easy—but they need to exist in a kind of counterpoint with each other; the narrative voice is one melodic thread, while the character’s voice is another. If the polyphony doesn’t work, the whole thing falls apart. It took me ages just to figure out the answers to such basic questions as, “To whom is Pyrre telling this story? In what context?”

I will absolutely be writing more stand-alones in this same world. There’s a discipline to telling a story bounded inside the covers of a single book that I’ve discovered I really enjoy. And there are so many stories to tell! I’ve had requests for books about at least a dozen of the secondary characters from the original trilogy.

One of my favorite things about Skullsworn is how kooky the morality is—Pyre has to fall in love with someone specifically to kill that person, and that’s totally normal! This gave you an opportunity to explore how a completely different value system from ours might feel like from the inside—complete with serious exchanges about it. We come to empathize with Pyrre in a context that we would otherwise find bizarre. What are your thoughts on this aspect of the novel?

The fantasy genre is replete with assassins, usually reputed to be absolutely cold-blooded. There’s a funny thing that happens, however, when we’re asked to sympathize with those assassins: their blood gets a little bit warmer. We learn one of several possible things 1) they only kill people who “deserve” it, 2) they have a code that prevents them from killing children, or nice people, or whatever, 3) even though they kill innocent people, they’re filled with an all-consuming regret. In other words, we’re usually given some mitigating factors, personality traits that bring the character closer to something we might recognize.

In writing Pyrre and her fellow skullsworn, I wanted to explore characters with a truly alien morality. Pyrre (and Ela, and Kossal) kill completely innocent people in this book. They kill with absolutely no regret. The challenge I set myself was to see if I could write these characters in such a way that readers would still love them, worry for them, weep with them. The justice and mercy of death seemed like a way into that problem, and Pyrre loves her god for these two traits: he comes for everyone, regardless of wealth or station, and it is death, ultimately, who frees people from suffering.

If I were blurbing your book I might say something like, “Brian Staveley goes full Middle Earth with Skullsworn!” Though I might also say Earthsea, or Westeros, or whatever Steven Erickson’s world is called. The point being: By now it’s clear that you’ve created a vast world, with a multiplicity of cultures, in which many stories happen. The possibilities for future novels seem endless.

I don’t want to write the same story over and over. In Skullsworn, I was eager to explore the politics and religion of a city occupied by a foreign and hostile empire on the brink of rebellion. Most people in Dombang hate the Annurian Empire. This is the same empire, of course, that we’re implicitly asked to root for in the Unhewn Throne series. I’m excited to have the chance to tell stories in this world from all different points of view, to come at the issues from dozens of different angles. Skullsworn unfolds in a single location over the course of two weeks. The book I’m working on next involves a circumnavigation of the globe over the course of a year.

Once in awhile you pop onto social media and talk about what you’re reading, and it’s always interesting. Are there particular books that you’ve loved recently?

I just finished Alessandro Baricco’s novella Silk—recommended by my wife. It’s a staggering, heartbreaking strange little book. It’s billed as a love story, but it’s not at all the love story that I expected. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What are you working on now? Your readers are going to want more after this one!

I’m just finishing up a novella. It’s my first book not set in the world of the Unhewn Throne. It follows a cartographer who wakes up on an unknown shore where the stars are strange and the land itself seems to shift as he sleeps. Even worse, the local inhabitants are trying to kill him for reasons he can’t understand. Did I mention it’s a love story? After this one and Skullsworn, I’m going to get a reputation for writing some really weird love stories.

The next book will be a stand-alone back in the Unhewn Throne world. I don’t want to say too much about it now except that I heard people loud and clear when they asked for more of a certain foul-mouthed, red-haired Kettral Wing leader.

Brian is the author of the award-winning fantasy trilogy, The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, which has been translated into a dozen languages worldwide. His newest book, Skullsworn, is due on April 25th from Tor Books.

After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decade, Brian began writing fiction. He now lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on twitter at @brianstaveley, facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley.

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Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and other places. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor/Macmillan in 2015 under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. The sequel, Fire Dance, is forthcoming in 2018.

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