Peter V. Brett: The Skull Throne

Apr 30, 2016

Long sagas are very common in the fantasy genre. Some are quite modest (Lord of the Rings is a brief trilogy), some are more sprawling (Harry Potter), and some are never ending (Jordan’s Wheel of Time with its 12 thousand pages). Theses series are mostly planned and outlined ahead of time, but there are those which just keep on growing at the rate between 1.5 and 3 volumes per volume published. The time between publications tends to grow as well. This whole phenomenon is known as GRRM effect.

Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle falls somewhere is between. It has been planned as a pentalogy from the beginning and Brett’s itching to write more books has partially been alleviated by several novellas with supporting stories and partially manifested in the number of pages per volume (416, 579, 639, 681 [comparing the default editions on GoodReads]). One would assume that it means that there’s a lot of material and story to cover, but that isn’t the case.

The fourth installment is called The Skull Throne. Reviewer Jessica summarized it as “soap opera masquerading as a fantasy”. Way back when, Brett presented a world shaped by the appearance of demons every night. He described different approaches to survival, created several societies, introduced interesting characters, and set up the big confrontation between demons and humans. The story has however been diluted with every book released and The Skull Throne features Arlen (the main hero) in roughly every tenth chapter (in a way it’s smart, because he leveled up too fast and has no serious opponents left until the big bossess). The remaining chapters are split between Rojer and his harem starter kit, Leesha with her love interests and bodily sensations, Inevera and her machinations, and Abban who has very little to do.

New characters who get introduced are much less developed so that they can be grasped easily while old characters suffer. I generally like reading about political machinations in fictional worlds, but the Krasian court is not that interesting. The characters are rather flat and everyone is named or titled Abu am’dama’ka’dal’ting Ka. The book even has a dictionary at the end!

The politics of the northern Dukes are even worse. Except for a few individuals (of course everything is run by the matriarch behind the scenes) we don’t know the characters and we don’t care about them. For what it’s worth, they could be simply named “neighbor who underestimates the danger”, “the power hungry guy”, or “the stepped on guy who probably cuts pigs in his spare time”. Brett simply can’t write as good political fiction as others.

The main plot of the war with demons hasn’t progressed by much. There was an advance in the Arlen line, but that was pretty straight forward and takes from Diablo III, I believe. Most characters don’t take demons that seriously (at least their ability to coordinate) and still squabble with each other. This is in many ways similar to The Song of Ice and Fire, but the intensity and suspension of the Damocle’s sword hanging over the whole human race is just not there (maybe because the demons are ever present, while Martin deploys his ice zombies only sparingly, like in a horror movie?).

However, there are small details which are good and entertaining. Well, I’m not sure, because many of them are related to the Krasians and I have a feeling, that they border on racist. For example the Krasian’s society is described as honor and religion based (and built on slavery) and it is put in direct contrast with the norther money grabbing, power hungry, opportunistically devout dukes who are generally corrupt and not even fit for battle. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt in many cases, but this is just glorification of extra-european societies.

Despite all its flaws The Skull Throne is very readable, there are captivating descriptions, and funny jokes. I might give a chance to the fifth book as long as it actually is the final one and has less then 800 pages.