The Stone in the Skull, Elizabeth Bear (Tor 978-07-6538-0135, $27.99, 368pp, hc). October 2017. Cover by Richard Anderson.
Full disclaimer: I haven’t read Elizabeth Bear’s first trilogy set in the Eternal Sky world (Range of Ghosts, etc.) but am also not sure it matters. While I’m sure a reading of The Stone in the Skull would be enhanced by knowing about this world before dropping into it, that knowledge is not required to enjoy the visit there. And it is enjoyable.
The story opens with the Gage, a brass automaton, and the Dead Man, a drifter, of sorts, trudging over ice-choked mountains to deliver a message to a queen in the damp land of Sarathai-tia. Mrithuri, said queen, is undertaking a public ritual involving lotus flowers – and the results of said ritual indicate that changes are about to come. Thus, the plot is launched.
What works so well in just about every Bear book are her characters, which always feel finely drawn and solidly connected to the story they are in. The plot hews closely to the whole band-of-rogues-assemble-to-fight-stronger-band-of-foes, but this is a feature rather than a bug. Bear noodles around that trope like a jazz master and takes the story to some interesting places where she can examine privilege, toxic pasts, and gender identities – with, of course, magic and mayhem and mud. Lots and lots of mud.
It’s hard to talk about the first book in a trilogy, if only because it isn’t intended to feel like it comes to a complete closure. This book ends by setting the next part of the story up well and making this reader wish she had the next book within arm’s reach so that she can find out what happens next.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the October 2017 issue of Locus.