The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“I have been beyond and seen the true world,” it whispered, a voice without breath, without resonance. “Seek the Carbuncle. Seek the Mother of Exiles, blind and in her singing catacomb. Time is short, and more is at stake than kingdoms. Something stirs. Something vast and cruel stirs, to the east, beneath the sea. Your destiny lies with the Origin of Storms.”

The Stone in the Skull has been my first experience with Elizabeth Bear, and all I can say is… why did no one ever tell me about this amazing series before!? Bear is known best for her Karen Memory series, but I’ve found myself bringing up both this book and Samantha Shannon’s latest novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree, every time I hear someone express an interest in political fantasy. The Stone in the Skull seems to have flown under the radar. 

While this novel is fairly low on action, it makes up for it with a compelling and eclectic cast of characters. Mrithuri and Sayeh, cousins and prophetess-queens of rival kingdoms. The Dead Man, an elite bodyguard sworn to a dead king. The Gage, a brass automaton driven by old hurts and a desire for revenge. Oftentimes, I find myself drawn to only one or two characters in a multi-POV novel; however, this was not at all the case in The Stone in the Skull – I found myself looking forward to each and every character. Once the cast begins to interact with one another directly, this became even more true.

Sayeh, in particular, quickly became a favorite. In the Lotus Kingdoms’ religion, souls are not considered to have a particular identity. A soul can inhabit a male body, a female body, or even animal bodies without any trouble. However, every now and then, a soul with a particular sense of identity may exist, and it may end up in a body that doesn’t suit it. Such is Sayeh: a soul with a feminine identity shoved into a male body at birth. Sayeh is transgender, and has undergone a full, surgical transition with the help of her court wizard, Tsering-La, and even has a son who she gave birth to via c-section. As the Good Mother is not known for making mistakes, it is accepted that transgender people must be part of Her plan – even if they are considered a bit odd. While Sayeh does not face overt discrimination, she does encounter many subtle forms and it doesn’t help her to cement her rule.

Sayeh is a wonderful mother – it was so refreshing to see a healthy parent-child relationship in a novel, and even more refreshing to see a very young child (just a few years old). All Sayeh wants is for her son to grow up to be a fair, independent young man who feels a sense of duty and responsibility for his subjects. Her method of accomplishing this… is to actually parent him! She is not the distant royal we so often see who allows her children to be raised by nursemaids and staff. 

“You are a prince. . . because I am a rajni and you are my son. It is my duty to oversee my people, and make sure they are fed and safe from strangers, and that the gods are attended as the gods desire. Someday, that will be your duty, too. When I am gone.”

He clutched at her, eyes suddenly wide.

She stroked his hair. “That won’t be for a very long time,” she reassured.

“But who take care me?” he squeaked.

“You’ll still have people to advise you, little otter. But everybody’s turn comes to be the one who takes care of other people someday. And you’ll have plenty of practice by then. You’ll be a daddy yourself, like I’m your mommy now.”

The plot and all of its twists and turns is carried lightly atop Bear’s prose.  She is not, however, pretentious in her word-weaving – far from it! I was taken by both her ability to create a glistening, crystalline scene that seemed to hold me hostage as well as her ability to drop me back down to earth with surprising grace and humor. I laughed aloud at several lines, and grinned at the wry comments sprinkled throughout the novel. 

He saw the sinuous shape slide into flight from the cover of the drifts above and he saw the frozen veils thrown wide as wings snapped out, particles turning, turning, glittering in the painful light. His eye took in the long neck, the fluted tail stretched rigid to counterbalance as the ice-wyrm took wing.

As a swordsman of decades of experience, his professional opinion rapidly concluded that a saber wasn’t worth a damned thing under these circumstances.

While the different goals and politics of each faction are often complex and opaque, Bear does a great job at making this accessible. If a difficult idea or plot line is introduced, it is done so in a way that is minimizes reader confusion and avoids becoming intentionally obtuse. The Stone in the Skullstrikes a perfect balance that allows the reader to enjoy the story and prose without the writing getting in the way.

The only criticism I can level on this novel lies in the unfortunate lack of action. Outside the opening scene, most of the book focuses on the day-to-day journeying and politicking of our cast. I think this is a real shame – how dare Bear give us a giant, hulking metal man who can plow through ice-wyrms, breaks flagstones if he’s not careful when walking, and not let us see him fight! I desperately want to see the Gage decimate some enemy forces alongside The Dead Man. However, the end of the novel promises to resolve this lack in the sequel, Red-Stained Wings

Thank you to the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review! I have also reviewed the sequel to The Stone in the Skull, The Red-Stained Wings.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year.

She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Astounding Award winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stories; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.

She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts with her spouse, writer Scott Lynch. 

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Related Posts

Published by Christine Sandquist

Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based sensitivity/developmental editor and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. They specialize in analyzing and providing feedback on works that include diverse, queer casts, representations of sexual trauma, and broader gender-based violence. They are part of the team behind Reddit r/fantasy, the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater speculative fiction genre.

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