Skullsworn author Brian Staveley on sex in fantasy and getting it right

Brian Staveley writes about fantasy confusion and writing about sex in Skullsworn

Fantasy, Sexual versus Epic

Every so often, I’ll have a conversation that goes something like this:


Person at Party: What kind of stuff do you write?

Me: Fantasy.

PaP (pursing lips appraisingly): Oooh. What kind of fantasy?


At this point, it’s usually clear to me that we have a misunderstanding, that they are, in fact, thinking that I write about sexual fantasies. I used to correct them. Not any more. Now I’m all:


Me: Oh, you know, lots of knives and swords.

PaP (possibly taken back, possibly even more intrigued, lowering their voice to a whisper): Like, really kinky stuff, eh?

Me: Like, killer crocodiles…


This used to be a lot funnier for me before I wrote Skullsworn, which really is a book with lots of sex and lots of knives. There is also a naked crocodile fight. The people are naked, not the crocodile. I mean, the croc is naked too, but… Never mind.

Point is, it was interesting writing a book in which the all the sex and romance leans up close against so much violence. That’s not what I set out to do. I was planning to write a book about a female assassin undergoing a special test that involved killing a batch of people in a certain amount of time. As I started, however, I realized that was a little dull. Assassins are good at killing, after all. It’s boring to write about people doing what they’re already good at.

Hence the sex. They don’t teach you about sex in assassin school. I wanted my assassin to have a hard time (no jokes please), and so I make her test more complicated: she needs to fall in love, then kill the person she loves. I had no idea if this would work, and some of the characters were as confused as me. “I’m a little unclear on the details,” remarks a priestess of the god of death, a little hungover after a night of partying. “Were we supposed to massacre everyone last night? Because if that was the plan, I would have done less dancing and had less sex.” The assassin narrator is partly speaking for me when she observes with some concern, “Artistic depictions of love tend to focus on softer subjects: lush lips, rumpled beds, the curve of a naked hip. Fewer crocodiles, certainly. Far less screaming.”

So this was the book where I really buckled down to write about sex and discovered something that everyone else probably already knew: mostly, writing about sex doesn’t involve actually writing about sex. I mean, eventually you need to get the characters naked and tangled up with each other, but there’s not much money in the money shot if the set-up’s no good. The lion’s share of a successful sex scene (this also seems true in real life) lies not in the position of the bodies or the acrobatics of the various maneuvers, but in a thousand little details explored before the clothes come off. The way an assassin straps on her knives or drinks her whisky, the way a naked soldier wades into a lake… if you don’t put in the work here, when things come to a climax, no amount of poeticism can help.

This wasn’t the lesson I expected to learn when I sat down to write a book about a priestess of the god of death, but writing is funny that way. I never feel like I end up writing the book I thought I was writing. Who knew that all those sly, whispering kinksters at the parties would turn out to have been right all along?

Skullsworn by Brian Staveley is published by Tor UK and is out now.