The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear
With The Stone in the Skull (2017), Elizabeth Bear returns to the world of her ETERNAL SKY trilogy with the opening book in another series, this one entitled THE LOTUS KINGDOMS. I only gave the first trilogy a 3.5, but recognized that score as being more than a little “churlish” as I put it, since the series was “So smart. So deep. So beautiful … [with] Complex, realistic characters … Big ideas. Strong females. Prose carved to a near-perfect edge. Moving moments … “See, churlish. (Hmm, I may have to start rereading that series after this review). Well, all of those elements are there as well in The Stone in the Skull, a book which starts off slowly and ends with a bang (literally) and which I thoroughly enjoyed start to finish with only a few quibbles. I should note early on here that while it’s set in the same world, one needn’t have read the first trilogy to enjoy this one.
The Lotus Kingdom, a once mighty and sprawling empire, has broken up into multiple smaller fiefdoms, most of them jockeying for advantage if not out and out conquest over the others. Mrithuri is the young female ruler (or rajni) of one such, called Sarathai. Thanks to some poor auguries, she’s been under ever greater pressure to find herself a new husband, with the primary suitors being an unpalatable cousin who seems on the verge of using military force to take what he wants if he can’t get it by marriage vow. She’s sent a message to her great-aunt, a wizard now known as The Eyeless, in hopes of finding some sort of exit from her predicament. Meanwhile, in the nearby kingdom of Ansh-Sahal, her cousin Sayeh — the widowed ruler there — has her own issues to deal with, particularly a water shortage and some worsening seismic activity. Sayeh is also shandha, a soul that had found itself “returned to the world in a form that did not suit them.” In Sayeh’s case, she had been born a prince, but had “demanded eventually to be recognized as a princess, and had married, and even, through the miraculous intercession of the Mother River, conceived and borne a healthy son.” Finally, there are the two characters who open the novel. The Gage is a wizard-constructed brass automaton whose creator is dead, leaving him masterless. And his partner is the Dead Man, a highly-trained soldier of the now-gone Caliphate. The two are carrying the Eyeless’ response back to Mrithuri and will eventually become entangled in the politics wracking the former empire.
I said The Stone in the Skull starts slowly, and that’s only partly true, as The Gage and the Dead Man present us with a pretty exciting action scene very early on. But past that point the book really reels back the fast pace and is content to settle in and let us rummage around the in the thoughts, desires, fears, and sorrows of the main POV characters as their backstories gradually bubble up (very gradually; some highly important points don’t make their way to the surface until the last fifth or so of the book). These are rich, complex characters, individually and in their interaction with others, all of them walking a knife’s edge, and I absolutely reveled in their depth and unhurried unfolding.
As I did in Bear’s lush prose, vivid descriptions, and detailed, sensuous world-building. Bear shows a deft stylistic hand whether describing open-sky and landscape, small domestic rituals, or grandly sumptuous public ceremony. And underneath all the linguistic skill lies a humanizing warmth that pervades the entire book. My only issue in The Stone in the Skull had to do when the warmth became a little, um, “hot,” when a few romantic elements arose too quickly and easily for me.
The Stone in the Skull is a thoughtful, richly complex, humane work eloquently told and elegantly constructed, with an exciting start, a slower-paced middle to let the characters grow on us, and then a tense and action-filled end section that leads us directly into the second book. Which I can’t wait for.