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 pieces of a once great Empire.
Returning to the world of completed series seems to be popular in fantasy at present; Tad Williams has returned to Osten Ard, K. W. Jeter has returned to steampunk London, and Elizabeth Bear has returned to the world of the Eternal Sky once more, and to characters from her story ‘The Ghost Makers’ in Fearsome Journey…
The Stone in the Skull takes place in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, but in a different part of that world; we’ve moved south from the events of the earlier trilogy, and later, to the Lotus Kingdoms, some years after the fall of the Uthman Caliphate in Shattered Pillars. Bear takes us from one place to the other with a certain knowingness; the start of the novel sees the Dead Man and the Gage travelling south from Messaline to the Lotus Kingdoms bearing a message, and that journey is also, of course, the journey the reader is taking. It’s a very well done transition, and the journey itself, as well as being a cliche of the genre, also allows the reader to get a different view of the Lotus Kingdoms than is presented from the monarchs’ viewpoints.
If there’s a problem of the worldbuilding, it’s the timeline. The Stone in the Skull, especially in combination with ‘The Ghost Makers’, reads as if it has a very inconsistent historical chronology; timescales shift and blur, relations and family trees compress and expand in strange ways, and the novel seems to have a chronology that feels mythical in its blurriness rather than the more historical feel the rest of the novel gives its history.
The Stone in the Skull has four main viewpoint characters; the Dead Man and the Gage alternate chapters with two of the rajnis of the the Lotus Kingdoms: Mrithuri, the unmarried young rajni of Sarathi-lae, the richest kingdom, surrounded by the others; and Sayeh, mother, widower, and shandha (essentially, a trans woman), rajni of Ansh-Sahal, the poorest of the kingdoms. The four different perspectives on the Lotus Kingdoms and the world more broadly allow for a wider understanding of things, especially as the different religious approaches of the Dead Man and the native inhabitants of the Lotus Kingdoms are so variant.
The other strength this central cast gives to The Stone in the Skull is the diversity of voices. Bear has always been excellent at characterisation, and this novel is no exception; from the cynical worldweariness of the Gage through to the blunted youth of Mrithuri, from the emptiness and faith of the Dead Man to the absolute maternal devotion of Sayeh, these four characters have different but in some ways similar drives, and different voices and personalities. They’re easily distinguished, and their different views on the same events are fascinating.
The Stone in the Skull‘s brilliant cast goes beyond its four viewpoint characters; the servants of the various monarchs we encounter, the caravan members Gage and the Dead Man guard on their journey to the Lotus Kingdoms, all are human characters with a good deal of interiority we see hinted at, and their own agendas. Some of the characters’ hidden agendas feel like they’re hinted at very strongly only to be subverted, whereas others have agendas that are much more straightforwardly open, but none are without agenda.
Bear has very few straightforwardly evil characters; unfortunately, both of those who are are the two people with disabilities in The Stone in the Skull, the two rajas of the other Lotus Kingdoms vying to reunify them. Both are caricatured, and their representation is singularly unsympathetic; they may gain interiority later in the series, but at this point both are simply evil, from the points of view from which we have seen them, in one case to the point of cartoonish.
Finally, The Stone in the Skull is another showcase for Bear’s continuing excellence with prose. From the boredom and excitement of the start of the novel, through the rising tensions and complex politics of the body of the book, to the climactic moments of the end, the pacing is fantastic, and the flow of the prose fits the shape of events and the reactions of our viewpoint characters to them perfectly. This book draws the reader in deeply and hard.
I’m hoping later books in the series make the villains less two dimensional and less frustratingly caricatured, but even with that criticism, The Stone in the Skull is an absolutely fantastic epic fantasy from a master of the genre.
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Bear is a friend. I am one of her Patreon patrons.
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