Book review · novel

Book review: The Stone in the Skull

The Stone in the Skull (Lotus Kingdoms #1), by Elizabeth Bear

STONE-IN-SKULL-finalDescription: (from Macmillan)

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.

Publication date: October 10th 2017.
A review copy (eARC) of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley. Some things might change in the final copy.

I had previously only read one book by Elizabeth Bear (Karen Memory) and I knew this new one was the first in a new triogy set in the same world as her Eternal Sky trilogy that I had been meaning to read for a while. PLUS the cover of this new one features some sort of dragon or wyrm and was made by a cover artist I really like the style of: Richard Anderson!

I read that this was a good entry point for new readers so I thought, why not! And guess what, I was not disappointed! I really need to invest in more books by Elizabeth Bear because she could very much become a new favourite author for me!

I struggled a little bit for the first few pages to get past the descriptions and understand what was going on, who I was following and where. But then it quickly picked up and I started enjoying myself quite a bit. This starts with a fight against an ice-wyrm by one of the main character, called the Dead Man (an old soldier from a fallen empire) and his companion: the Gage, a brass automaton who used to be a human. For an epic start, that was an epic start! The cover reflect this fight, because there are no more apparences of such ice-wyrm or such epic battle for the rest of the book.

This is mostly a set-up book, you can feel everything building up for the sequel, the stakes are laid down, the characters are fleshed out and their motivations are explained. The main storyline is of these two accompanying a caravan throughout mountains and border kingdoms, in order to arrive to the Lotus Kingdom to deliver an important message from a Wizard.

The other main characters are both Rajni (queen, or ruler): Mrithuri is a young rajni who’s refusing to marry and trying to hold the throne with all her strenght, and Sayeh is older, in her fifties, also trying to hold her throne now that her husband is dead and she has a young child. It is notable that Sayeh is a trans woman, who was able to give birth thanks to her Wizard’s knowledge of magic and surgery. I felt like the way the narrative handled this side of her identity was great because it is never questioned, and even a side thought by Mrithuri on another occasion addresses the idea of gender. (I haven’t been able to find reviews from trans reviewers and I will try to link several as soon as I can find some!)
They are both very strong women in different ways, struggling to take a hold of their very different kingdoms and fighting against bad omens.

The worldbuilding is really rich, you can see the author is really trying to make us have a feel of it through a lot of descriptions, of clothes, towns, people, architecture, landscapes… I usually do not like the long descriptions/little plot combo, but I actually really enjoyed it here, it really helped to give a body to the story, the world being as important as the characters. The world is inspired by pre-colonial India (if I understood correctly), and I was glad to see in the Acknowledgments that the author had asked for several Indian or Indian-American women’s insight. This makes me think that it was all done with respect to the source material and with care. Of course I cannot judge, feel free to link any review you could find from “ownvoices” reviewers on the comment section! I looked for them but since the book only came out this month I didn’t find any yet as well.

I loved how magic was incorporated to the story, how many magical creatures and different religions and deities, different kind of wizards and school of magic there were. It’s one of my favourite thing in fantasy novels!

The voices of the Dead Man and the Gage were really funny, with a lot of snark and sarcasm, them having lived such a long time and being a bit disillusioned about the world and what they’re expecting from it.
Another very good point for me is the number of female characters in the novel. The Stone in the Skull has four main characters where two are women, but there are also a great number of supporting characters that are women: very young ones, elderly ones… From the first chapter I was worried about the absence of women but to my delight I was very quickly proven wrong. They have a lot to say about their place as women, what the world hold for them and a lot of my favourite quotes are from Sayeh and Mrithuri.

A note before the conclusion: There is a (long) sex scene around the end of the novel, and I’m mentionning this since I know some people do not like to read graphic sex. Still, I have to add that I liked how this scene did not involve penetration and was consensual, focused on the pleasure of the woman. This is still a bit rare in epic fantasy and that is why I felt I needed to mention it. In case it might be the tilting point for someone to buy this 😉 or the contrary!

While being a book with not too much action and a lot of political intrigue, I really loved the characters and grew to care very much for them. I highlighted a lot of this book, from really cool or fun quotes to quotes that resonated with me. I love Elizabeth Bear’s style and will absolutely read the next one, plus more novels from her!

You can read Chapter One here and Chapter Two here here.

An essay Elizabeth Bear wrote: Where are all the women?

Content warning: mention of rape

2 thoughts on “Book review: The Stone in the Skull

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