Review: The Stone in the Skull

Posted: November 2, 2017 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Elizabeth Bear, Fantasy

If you read Elizabeth Bear’s The Eternal Sky series (RANGE OF GHOSTS starts the trilogy), then you’ll love her new The Lotus Kingdoms series (which takes place in the same universe) starting with THE STONE IN THE SKULL. However, even if you haven’t read her before, if you like clever and beautifully written novels, then you should be reading more Elizabeth Bear.

From the dustjacket: “The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.

“They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered bits of a once great Empire.”

Two of queens of the city-states in the Lotus Kingdoms rule despite the preference for a male raja. Mrithuri is the young queen of Sarathai and her much older cousin in the next kingdom over has buried five wives and claims to want to provide Mrithuri with an heir (fortunately she isn’t so dumb). Sayeh does have an heir, but he is young and she is widowed; but while she isn’t being pursued the same way Mrithuri is, her people are in danger if the earth-trembling portents are an indication of what will come.

The story revolves around these four characters, Gage, Dead Man, Mrithuri, and Sayeh, all very different people dealing with their own struggles. But one thing they all have in common: loss. The Gage was once human and lost the one he loved; the Dead Man’s wife and children died in the war; Mrithuri’s parents died when she was a child and she must try to lead her people despite her youth; and Sayeh has lost her husband and is in danger of losing her lands. And it may just be these four people who change the landscape of a small corner of the world.

Queens, invading armies, a golem, a master-less samuri, a shattered Empire--Elizabeth Bear is in fine form in THE STONE IN THE SKULL.

Bear starts the novel out slowly–she has four stories to tell and it’s going to be a little while until storylines start to merge. She sets the stage for this world she’s created so that if you haven’t read any of The Eternal Sky series you won’t get too terribly lost. That doesn’t mean she spoon feeds you everything you need to know–Bear wouldn’t waste your precious time with meaningless chatter–but she does take her time to help you get to know the characters and their situations, what their motivations are, how they think. The result is that we come to like the characters, even the Gage who is more machine now than human, and  moves through life in a different way than mere mortals. One thing Bear does immensely well, which I greatly appreciate when it comes to epic fantasies, is that she is really great at naming conventions. This book has a huge cast and it’s only 366 pages long. There are plenty of epic fantasy novels where I get characters mixed up–but not here. Not only did I not get them mixed up, but I recognized them due to Bear’s subtle yet deft characterization of even secondary characters.

The story is pretty straightforward, which works fine because it’s the characters and setting that really make this book shine. The Gage and the Dead Man deliver their message. The portents in the first chapters come to fruition. The nefarious cousin makes his move. There’s even a little romance (it happens a little too quickly for my tastes, but it’s hard to be annoyed when I like the characters). The story is told with such style and attention to detail about the setting, political intrigue, and cultural behaviors that you hardly notice there isn’t much action involved. I found myself more fascinated with the Godmade magician Nizhvashiti and his (hers?) utter foreigness. About how the Cauled Sun looked, imagining why they called the sky the river in the heavens. How the people of the Lotus Kingdoms lives revolved around the monsoon seasons. How the royal women of the Lotus Kingdoms have the ability to communicate with animals. How who needs marijuana when you could use a snake bite instead? This world is fascinating (you would already know this if you read The Eternal Sky series, and if you haven’t, you should be asking yourself why not?!?) and I’m interested to see where Bear will take us in the sequels.

  • Recommended Age: 17+ (for the sex scene, otherwise 15+ for comprehension)
  • Language: Not much
  • Violence: Some peril and death, but not particularly bloody
  • Sex: There is a lengthy and very detailed scene; references to various sexual orientations

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