The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett
The Demon Cycle is a cool, if flawed series, with a lot of stuff going for it. The last book, The Daylight War began to feel like a middle Wheel of Time book as the focus shifted from the central narrative of humanity facing a demon horde to a series of far less engaging subplots. Some of these elements are still here, but overall The Skull Throne is a major improvement over it’s predecessor and does just what a penultimate book should; gets you rabidly hyped for the finale.
The Skull Throne follows three stories primarily. The first, most exciting and unfortunately briefest follows Arlen and Jardir following their epic battle at the conclusion of The Daylight War. We probably spend most of our time with the Kraisans as Jardir’s sons begin to vie for the Skull Throne in the power vacuum left by their father, whilst Inevera manipulates from the shadows. Finally we follow Leesha and Rojer as they journey to Angiers to forge closer ties with Duke Rhinebeck to help them fend off the Kraisans to the south and the nightly terrors of the Core.
As can often be the case with penultimate books, The Skull Throne strongly feels like it’s mostly about moving things into place for the finale, but based on where things are left off The Core is going to be a hell of a book. The pacing is much improved from the last couple of books, partially because it finally abandons the flashback structure which held back the previous novel, focusing much more on the here and now. However, it’s still sluggish in places, particularly in the Angiers storyline. The last 100 or so pages are insane however, an incredible barrage of events and game changers which actually left me a little exhausted. Some of these moments could have used a little more room to breathe, particularly considering how long the book is overall, but the ending of this book is genuinely thrilling and leaves me very confident for where the series is headed.
The Painted Man was a strong debut and Brett’s writing has improved book to book. The fight scenes were always a strength and they’ve stayed good, but in terms of general world building and dialogue things have come along immensely. Earlier books contained some general iffiness about the presentation of women, sex and race but Brett seems to have learnt from those mistakes. Gender roles, racial prejudice and sex are still prominent themes, but he’s gotten a fair bit more nuanced in how he handles them.
I hope that we get to see Arlen back in the protagonist’s chair for The Core, as we did with the similarly sidelined Rand al’Thor in the Wheel of Time series. I do understand why authors do this if going down the powerful chosen one route, but it’s become a bit played out. I liked Abban as always and Rojer develops a bit more here, coming on from his basic Mat Cauthon impression. Leesha has finally come into her own as a character, which is nice!
Books like The Skull Throne can be quite difficult to judge on their own merits without the story conclusion it is focused on establishing; I think that this is a big reason why a lot of people don’t like A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire. I can say that I enjoyed The Skull Throne and that, whilst not as strong as the first two books, it is definitely better than the third.