The Stone in the Skull (Lotus Kingdoms, #1)
by Elizabeth Bear
Cover Artist: Richard Anderson
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765380135
Date: 10 October 2017 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Stone in the Skull returns to the captivating, original high fantasy setting that Elizabeth Bear first visited in her Eternal Sky trilogy. This time, we are in the Lotus Empire, a disunified feuding tangle of principalities that are the remnants of an empire that has fallen into pieces.
Two of the stronger kingdoms have allied and threaten the kingdom of Mrithuri, a young woman who has retained her independence by refusing to marry and is set on continuing to guide her nation. Knowing the danger she is in, she appeals to a powerful wizard across the mountains, who dispatches a message in the hands of a strange pair of mercenaries. The Dead Man is a royal guard for a caliphate that no longer exists, whose life has been devoted to duty but who now has no one to serve. The Gage is a massive bronze automaton animated by a formerly human mind who has likewise outlived the tasks that have guided his life.
The final point of view character is Sayeh, a widow who rules her own fragment of the old Lotus Empire. Her kingdom faces the same threats as Mrithuri's but, in addition, dire portents suggest that some greater evil threatens her realm and perhaps all of the Lotus Empire.
There is much to like in this return to the Eternal Skies setting. Bear does an excellent job of making her world feel richly populated, not just with characters but with cultures. This is particularly well done with the Dead Man, who is an outsider to the culture of the Lotus Empire, and who shows us that the Empire is part of a much wider world.
The characters are also excellent. She makes us feel the frustration of women trying to wield power in a culture that expects them to stay quiet and have babies. But Mrithuri, a young woman who trembles under the responsibility thrust on her ever since her parents were murdered when she was a child, is totally distinct from Sayeh, a transgender woman and widow who is fiercely protective of the son she miraculously conceived. Each faces some of the same struggles, but bring their own voice and life experience to their struggles. Even the Dead Man, who in outline comes closest to a fantasy cliché, is given a depth and uniqueness that makes him more than just an archetype. In addition, the secondary characters also come to life. Every courtier and handmaiden feels like a distinct, living person and this is especially impressive given the rich cast of secondary characters.
However, there is a significant flaw in this novel, and that is the plot and pacing. Put simply, the entire novel feels like set up, without much in the way of action. The Gage and the Dead Man spend the first half of the book en route with a caravan to Mrithuri's kingdom and none of the obstacles they face feel integral to the plot. It feels like a mix of marking time and scene setting as they travel through different parts of the Lotus Empire. Meanwhile, much of our time with Mrithuri is spent with her performing essential but somewhat tedious courtly rituals, with her internal monologue giving us most of her character development. This is fine in small doses, but I was left wanting more to actually happen. Sayeh's story has the most actual conflict and plot development, but it's too little to give the plot much momentum.
Things improve once the Gage and the Dead Man arrive at the court, and Mrithuri learns of the imminent threat she faces. The character interaction between the Gage, The Dead Man, and Mrithuri and her court are well done and there are some startling developments and revelations that transform our understanding of the characters. But still, much of this happens in conversations, without the characters making very many decisions or being active. And that's the heart of the problem. The characters feel passive--following orders, or worrying about problems they can't do much to resolve, and spending far too long just waiting around. In the end, it feels like an extended introduction to the characters and setting, and by the end, it feels like the pieces are in place for the sequel to have more narrative momentum. But it takes the whole novel to reach that point.
I will certainly be reading the rest of the series, and I genuinely enjoyed The Stone in the Skull. Bear is doing some fascinating things with the epic fantasy genre, and I want to see where she goes. But this first volume is very weighted down with character and world building relative to plot development, and it won't be everyone's cup of tea.