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The Skull Throne is the fourth novel in the bestselling Demon Cycle by American author Peter V. Brett. While maintaining the excellent standards of writing quality and pacing that I’ve come to expect from this series, it is the first book to actually feel like a middle book in terms of plot. I can’t shake the feeling that writing a quintet turned out to be just a tad too much length for the story, and so now in the fourth instalment we finally get a bit of filler. That said, this is still a tremendously entertaining and well-written novel, and Brett writing filler is better than many other published author’s climactic third novel of a trilogy.

The Skull Throne of Krasia stands empty.

Built from the skulls of fallen generals and demon princes, it is a seat of honor and ancient, powerful magic, keeping the demon corelings at bay. From atop the throne, Ahmann Jardir was meant to conquer the known world, forging its isolated peoples into a unified army to rise up and end the demon war once and for all.

But Arlen Bales, the Warded Man, stood against this course, challenging Jardir to a duel he could not in honor refuse. Rather than risk defeat, Arlen cast them both from a precipice, leaving the world without a savior, and opening a struggle for succession that threatens to tear the Free Cities of Thesa apart.

In the south, Inevera, Jardir’s first wife, must find a way to keep their sons from killing each other and plunging their people into civil war as they strive for glory enough to make a claim on the throne.

In the north, Leesha Paper and Rojer Inn struggle to forge an alliance between the duchies of Angiers and Miln against the Krasians before it is too late.

Caught in the crossfire is the duchy of Lakton—rich and unprotected, ripe for conquest.

All the while, the corelings have been growing stronger, and without Arlen and Jardir there may be none strong enough to stop them. Only Renna Bales may know more about the fate of the missing men, but she, too, has disappeared. . .

So the tl;dr version of this review, for the people who’ve already read the previous three books is a nice succinct “Yup, still great. Go read it.” With three novels under his belt, Brett is definitely in his stride, and everything’s building towards his grand fifth book finale, and no part of this instalment is anything less than the high standard of quality he’s already established. It’s just…I guess he needed to have an actual middle book somewhere in the middle, and this is it. Usually the publisher’s blurb about a book, if it’s accurate at all, just sort of describes some of the starting points of the plot of the novel, but in this case, it’s basically the entire plot of the novel.

That’s not even really a criticism of the plot. Everything makes sense, everything followed from what came before it, I guess my feeling is just that everything took one step towards resolution. Nothing especially new was added, and nothing especially big got resolved as a result of it. Each of the previous novels would have a few big reveals, a few things get fully settled, whereas this just sort of bridged our way to the finale. I wonder if at some point in the development of the story, Brett considered this and the upcoming final book to be the final book of a quartet, but it got too bulky and needed to be split into two smaller parts. That would certainly explain my weird feeling that in spite of all the things happening (small h), nothing much Happened (large H).

The Daylight War left us on a hell of a cliffhanger, and while we find out what happened there pretty much straight away, all we did was sort of meander around the top of the cliff for a while and then suddenly go hang off it again at the end of this book. Now, going into the finale, you want to set up a pretty big cliffhanger/sudden revelation but this one also was completely sudden without anything really leading up to it or giving any inkling that it was coming. Just you get to the end of the book, and go “Oh, ok, so I guess that’s what book 5 is about then,” and so now we wait for everything to be resolved in the last book.

Now, before you go getting the crazy idea that I didn’t like this book, or that anything was actually bad about it, let me sing some praises. Brett is a fantastic writer. I like all his likeable characters, I dislike all his dislikeable ones. Even the relatively minor characters have some nice sketches of depth around them that let you feel like you really get what they’re about. By four books, the cast of secondary-ish characters are well established and have their own stuff going on. That’s probably my favourite part of the Demon Cycle storyline: that the people who aren’t Jardir and Arlen have things going on that aren’t just about Jardir and Arlen. That ended up being part of the downfall for me about large stories like The Wheel of Time, where everything ends up having to be about Mr Protagonist. Here, between the internal family issues Inevera has keeping Jardir’s sons in line while he’s missing, and the developing stories about Leesha and Rojer, there’s an actual world going on around the main story events. Brett manages to show us that world without actually detracting from the main story too, which is easier said than done.

Altogether, I come back to my tl;dr version from the top of this review: Still great, go read it. The magic system is still one of the best and most original I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, the plot itself is engaging and has an equally original take on the ‘chosen one’ trope that I really like. While this particular instalment felt more like passing time until the finale, if the only criticism of one book out of five was ‘not that much happened, but everything that happened was awesome’ I think we’re in pretty good shape. I’m definitely excited for the final volume and heartily suggest this series to pretty much everybody.

Dan received an Advance Review copy of this novel from Del Ray via NetGalley

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