Review: The Skull Throne (Demon Cycle Book 4) by Peter V. Brett

The Skull Throne

 

Short Review:

An epic fantasy that is showing signs of runaway plot-threads.  Secondary characters are given full rein while the central characters and story of Arlen and Jardir are side-lined once again.  Also hints of unnecessary complexity added to an already full story at the expense of the core, magical story.  Despite this, it is an interesting and enjoyable fantasy that further expands the world and the broader narrative canvas.

 

Longer Review:

If you are reading this I am assuming that you have already read the first three books in the series (The Warded Man/The Painted Man, The Desert Spear, and The Daylight War).  If you haven’t, this book won’t make much sense to you at all.  As it is, even after having read the first three, there isn’t much of a continuation of the main story and this reads as overly complicated, needless filler or as a side narrative that sits as a companion to the main story.  Don’t get me wrong, it was entertaining and I enjoyed reading it, but I just didn’t care about a lot of the secondary characters who had suddenly leapt into prominence.  And I was one of those people that really liked The Daylight War.  But, before I go on about the aspects of the novel that I didn’t like, let me first say that it was a good book. It was readable.  There were some genuinely engaging aspects and more than one event that I didn’t see coming.  It was good enough that I will be buying the next one.

Here is some context as to why this book didn’t quite hit the mark for me.  The first book followed three central characters; Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer.  It was focused on their coming-of-age/development narratives with the main thrust of the story being about preparing for the Demon War, and with a particular emphasis on Arlen’s journey.  But throughout there was an overarching narrative about a magical enemy, a key hero, and a nice cast of supporting secondary heroic characters to flesh things out.  All in all a great, straightforward, exciting fantasy story.  The writing may not have been of the highest quality (an aspect of Brett’s work that has continued to improve dramatically over the books) but the tight focus on the story, and the well realised characters made the first book a fun read.  It was Gemmell-esque in its directness and ability to tell a riveting story.

 

The second book both built on the storyline from the first but also delved deeper into the story of Jardir.  Brett took a chance and revisited part of the plot of the first book, but from Jardir’s perspective this time.  While it re-treaded aspects of the story it gave additional context to the events, and added a great deal of nuance to Jardir’s character because of the new focus and point of view.  The Krasian culture was explored from this altered perspective, and it was a great read.  The world expanded, and details were filled in.  But the coming Demon War remained a central focus, and Brett explored the idea of the Deliverer as less a token fantasy prophecy, and more a complicated political and religious storyline.  Something that deserves a lot more praise than it has received.  The book also pushed the story of the ‘current’ events forward a little and consolidated the story into a solid set-up that promised building tension and escalation as the series moved forward.  So there was some filling in of the previous hero’s storyline, the raising of a new heroic character, and it was building toward a grand confrontation in the Demon War.  Again, like the first one it was a fun read, only this time the writing was better, and the depth of characters elevated this novel to a great read.  The series seemed to really be building toward something.  At a push you could describe its narrative arc as one step back, but two steps forward.

 

The series slowed significantly with the third book.  Once again Brett went to past events, this time the back-story of Jardir’s wife, Inevera.  While Inevera’s story addressed issues about agency in female characters in the series, promoted some great female characters to more prominent roles, and added further depth and context to the political and religious aspects of the Krasian theocracy, it felt like it was treading water when it should have been moving forward.  Inevera had been a supporting character and was now being raised as a key, central player to join the burgeoning cast of characters that were rapidly filling up the story.  Brett balanced this backstory by also checking in to Cutter’s Hollow and the previous primary and growing numbers of secondary players, and how the preparations for the upcoming conflict were progressing.  But although the series seemed to have slowed down, this was a good thing as this was by far the most well written of the novels.

 

The writing was more confident.  The characters were given time to explore and develop into more realised and complex individuals.  The Krasian culture, although clearly a faux Islamic Middle Eastern analogue, had a chance to become a great deal more complex and nuanced.  From book one to book three, there had been a significant loss of forward momentum in the Demon War story, but that had been offset by some wonderful detail about the world and other characters and really set the scene for the approaching war.  Despite this, The Daylight War was really great and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I may have felt a smidgeon of dissatisfaction about the further delay to Arlen and Jardir’s confrontation with the demons, but the quality of the story was enough to compensate, and the fourth volume promised to deal with the cliff-hanger ending and therefore seemed to be looking to the future.

 

But if we look at the series as a whole, as it has progressed, the central thread of the Demon War has become less a focus and Brett seemingly becoming more and more enamoured with the world he has created and the Krasian culture in particular.  While each book has delved into further details of the complicated Krasian courts and culture, far less time has spent on their Thesian counterparts, and even less time has been spent looking to the future of the story and Demon War itself.  While it is indeed the backdrop to everything that is happening, Brett seems less concerned with pushing the Demon story forward, and more with exploring the secondary characters he has created.  He seems to be becoming lost in the intricacies of the world he created for his story, instead of the story the world was meant to support.  While many of the sub-plots are interesting, this lack of forward narrative progress is keenly noticeable in The Skull Throne.

 

To put it another way, the series began as a Gemmell-esque fantasy story about an oncoming demon war, the rise of the heroes and powers necessary to fight them, and had a few sub-plots and secondary characters to flesh out the world.  As the series has progressed it has become far more about the politics and plots of the Krasian courts, some development of similar human drama in the Thesian courts, than it has about this initial narrative trajectory.  The magical conflict and the heroic story have become secondary concerns to the intricacies of the worldbuilding and the exploration of the created cultures.   This trend continues in The Skull Throne.

 

The book is divided into three major storylines.  The first, a continuation of Jardir and Arlen’s literal cliff-hanger ending of the last book, is disappointingly the least developed of the three.  While it is probably the one most fans were interested in reading about and the one directly concerned with fighting the demons, it is a minor affair at best.  It will undoubtedly have major repercussions for the next book, but the events detailed in those chapters were so divorced from the events in the other plot lines that they felt like they were part of an entirely different novel.  Terms such as token, lip-service, under-developed, poorly realised, and inadequate, all spring to mind when I think of those sections.  To be honest, I would almost have preferred from them to be entirely absent from the novel until the very end when they could have appeared together with a major reveal and plot twist.  The next book could then have opened with their account of what happened and thrown the reader headlong into the last confrontation.  At least that way I wouldn’t have been so frustrated by the fragmentary nature and lack of detail to their story this time around.

 

The second, and much more significant, storyline concerns life at Jardir’s court and the political intrigue his disappearance has encouraged in the courts of his sons and his wife.  The reader is introduced, or reintroduced, to a whole host of Krasian characters and the sections are divided amongst several of the court figures.  As fascinating as it was to get yet another backstory of hitherto unimportant characters, that particular narrative strategy is now wearing a little thin, particularly because this time around it was fragmentary.  Secondly, given that the majority of the characters in this section were previously unimportant and secondary at best, I didn’t really care about what happened to them unless it impacted directly on the overall Demon War.  Given that Arlen and Jardir were effectively cut off from these sub-plots (else they wouldn’t be happening) they rang hollow, needless, and irrelevant.  Their stories felt like sub-plots and side-narratives rather than central concerns, which led to the perception of many of these storylines as filler for the main story.  Thirdly, so many of these Krasian princelings and warriors were interchangeable cyphers with very similar names and positions, that I had trouble telling them apart, and therefore had difficulty immersing myself in their stories.  Lastly, having spent the last two books taking a long look at Krasian culture, spending nearly half this book doing it again felt repetitious rather than adding anything new.  Being four books in to a proposed five book cycle, I was rather hoping that we would now be bearing down on the main story rather than continuing with foundational narrative building to set the scene yet again.  Surely three books to set the stage and clear your throat is enough?  Apparently not.

 

The last major plot thread is woven around Leesha, Gared, and Rojer et al. and the politics of the Thesians.  I enjoyed reading about Leesha and Rojer.  I enjoyed dipping into the politics of the Greenlanders.  But unfortunately many of the new characters in those sections were oddly two dimensional fantasy clichés: the fat, morally repugnant leader; the conniving and sinister advisor; the stupid but vicious rival; the manipulative matriarch, the duplicitous madam… and so on and so on.  We have seen these self-same characters time and time again in fantasy writing, and even their scheming was tired and predictable.  So while it was good to return to these characters once again, it was more like briefly checking in with them to remind the reader that they were still there.  Unfortunately, like the Krasian storylines, these sections also felt divorced from Arlen and Jardir, and therefore from the looming Demon battle.  There were certainly some great scenes contained in these sections, and at least one major revelation that was arresting and I didn’t see coming, but overall they made the book seem bloated and directionless.

 

Don’t mistake me, both the Thesian and Krasian sections were full to the brim of things happening.  Plotting, scheming, treachery, battles, fight scenes, duels, arguments, confrontations and even a risqué moment or two.  In fact they were stuffed to the gills with apparently tumultuous events.  So full that even the most interesting of facets was rarely given any time to develop before the scene changed to jump into the next all important scene, resulting in a number of sequences being given short shrift.   This caused a jumble of sequences cascading forward in a confused rush, making significance hard to discern.  I am sure that a great many were essential events that had to be mentioned because they would be important later but there was little way to tell which those were.  Also, due to the absence of the series central heroic protagonists from these sections, they also seemed to be secondary plotlines and supporting stories, not the main story being told.

 

Therefore both the Krasian and Thesian storylines suffered from the same major problem.  They seemed irrelevant.  Whether or not they become profoundly relevant to the next novel is yet to be seen, but from this perspective they felt entirely extraneous and superfluous.  Like filler to stall the reader while Brett tries to figure out what the overall plan is for the last book.  This all added up to an interesting enough book that felt like an excellent companion volume to the main series, but didn’t feel like a significant entry in the main story.  As a way of explaining this, imagine that after the end of Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the next book followed Rosie Cotton back in the Shire as she argued with the Sackville Baggins and the Hobbit council, Glorfindel in Rivendell in a whole sub-plot about the relationship between the Wood Elves and Elrond and the history of their sundering, and a story about a young ship boy on one of the Corsair ships off the coast of Gondor.  They all might have been interesting stories, but the reader wanted more about the Fellowship, the Ring, and the war with Sauron.  Those stories would have appeared superfluous to the main story no matter how interesting or how much they added to the storyworld.  And that is what The Skull Throne feels like.

 

In some respects, Brett’s decision to focus on the ramifications of Arlen and Jardir’s disappearance and the inevitable power vacuum and chaos was being true to the world created.  However, as much as I admire authenticity and realism when it comes to fantasy writing, it is a novel in a series that began as a wonderfully streamlined, story-centric fantasy epic.  Over time it appears to have put on weight, slowed down, and lost sight of its end-game.  I am sure this is a very deliberate choice on Brett’s part, and that he always intended this to be a more complicated, politically focused series than the first book perhaps suggested, but it hasn’t quite worked for me.

 

While this was the main problem I had with the novel, unfortunately it was not the only one.  I fully admit that what I am about to complain about is a personal preference and a lot of other people may disagree, but from the very beginning of the series there were two elements of Brett’s writing that just rubbed me the wrong way.  As the series has progressed both these elements have become more and more prevalent and irritating.  The first was the use of folksy idiom when the characters of the Hollow speak.  While the occasional unsophisticated term added a bit of colour to their speech, the over-use of the bumpkin-ese read less as giving character to their speech as it was an artificial and contrived ploy to make them appear as good honest unsophisticated folk, and it always seemed to be laying it on a little thick.  The language was jarring and became a constant irritant made all the more noticeable because the narrative prose was so much better.  The faux-earthy language was also inconsistently applied, which thankfully gave some respite from it, but also continued to highlight its discordant sound.  Even characters who have demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of more coherent ‘proper’ speech, indulge in bumpkin-isms, which highlights the deliberate and forced nature of the dialogue.

 

But while that would irritate me, it is Brett’s overuse of the contrived Krasian terms that really annoyed me.  Dal’Sharum, Nie’Sharum, Kai’Sharum, Kha’Sharum,  Jiwah’Sharum, Shar’Dama Ka,  Alagai’Sharak,  Damaji’ting, Dama’ting, Nie’dama’ting, and Sharum’ting to name a few.  Not only do these terms commit the cardinal fantasy sin of over-using apostrophes (a personal bug-bear of mine), but due to their similarities, they were easily confusable terms.  While every other aspect of the Krasian language is capable of being rendered in English (as all their dialogue is) for some unknown reason, these terms never are, not even in the narration.  And they are used a lot.  A LOT.  If we take one example, Dama, which roughly means holy man, Brett never feels the need to use any other term except ones based on this root.  So while we have multiple terms for religious figures in the real world, many having no linguistic similarities, the Krasians have only Dama and its varieties.  Even within the narration Brett feels no need to exercise any sort of linguistic breadth and simply repeats these terms ad nauseum when there are a whole host of synonyms of analogous terms he could use.  These, coupled with the plethora of incredibly similar names, made reading parts of the Krasian section a bewildering chore.

 

I know, I know.  Using the terms and the names gave the culture a sense of identity and distinct linguistic shape, and Brett applies them consistently which goes directly to creating a truly authentic feel to the Krasians, but I would have gladly sacrificed some of that authenticity for the sake of readability.  As the series has gone on, Brett seems to have doubled down on this use of terminology as a defining characteristic instead of using the terms sparingly to add flavour and colour to the story.

 

Given what I have said you might think that I did not enjoy this book, which is not the case.  Certainly this book frustrated me on a number of occasions, and the use of terminology and naming conventions grated, but I enjoyed reading it.  Peter V. Brett remains an author high on my to read list.  I may not like all the choices he has made with his books, but I respect his decisions and try to see and enjoy the story he wants to tell, even if it is not the story I thought I wanted.  His work continues to improve in complexity, characterisation and style, and it is worth reading.

 

 

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