With The Stone in the Skull Elizabeth Bear returns to the world of the Eternal Sky for another grand tale. The previous novels set in this universe—Range of Ghosts (reviewed here), Shattered Pillars (reviewed here), and Steles of the Sky (reviewed here)—followed a band of royal and not-so-royal individuals through their efforts to consolidate kingdoms and prevent a vast evil from overtaking their world. The same general formula returns in The Stone in the Skull but the setting and the cast are quite different: our protagonists are a Gage, a Dead Man, one young rajni and another middle-aged.
The Gage and the Dead Man are traveling through contested territories in the Lotus Kingdoms—once a grand empire, now a set of smaller sometimes-warring states—with a message from the Eyeless One, a great wizard in Messaline. Arriving lands them in the middle of a war between four branches of the family. Sayeh and Mrithuri are rajni seeking to defend their lands against their avaricious relatives Anuraja and Himadra, and there is also something greater and more terrible lurking beneath the political maneuvering.
However, connections remain between the two trilogies. The poetess Ümmühan is an elderly woman, now; there is a wizard named Tsering and an intriguing moment of acknowledgement that perhaps the name is more than just a coincidence. This set of small connections offers readers familiar with the prior novels a burst of familiarity and pleasure but doesn’t distract or impede a fresh audience, either—a delicate dance that Bear manages well.
Writing a second series in a shared world is no small feat. The needs of both audiences, those familiar and those not, must be balanced against one another. The dangers of repetition or predictability are high, but The Stone in the Skull avoids them quite neatly. As a constant reader of Bear’s fiction I was pleased with the trends and callbacks present in the novel but still intrigued by the original directions this particular tale appears to be going in.
And I say appears, because The Stone in the Skull is unapologetically the first third of one large narrative rather than a discrete stand-alone novel. Sprawling fantasy arcs with complex dynastic families, magic, and myth have a special place for me as a reader, and there’s something pleasurable about a narrative that intends to spread over a large scale and then does so. The first third gathers our protagonists onto the same battlefield and binds them to each other; the stakes are set, challenges delivered, and the audience is left eager for more.
The sense that this is the first third of one large narrative is a bit of a double-edged sword in terms of pacing, though. The first half of the novel is spent on introductions and stage setting, and while Bear’s prose is as gripping and effective as ever, that does make for a slow start—I imagine moreso for a reader unfamiliar with the world of the Eternal Sky. However, the cast of characters is engaging enough that the reader has a strong foothold. The Gage and the Dead Man, in particular, have a fascinating rapport that could sustain my attention almost indefinitely.
Both are creatures who have outlived their life’s purpose, their revenge, and found themselves still moving. The Gage—an automaton created from a once-living woman—survived the wizard who made him; the Dead Man survived the caliphate that gave him his name and his traditions, as well as his revenge for his murdered family. Together, the pair are navigating the potential to form fresh relationships and connections. Their unlikely but intense friendship is a strong thread that runs through the narrative, a closer bond than either has with another person romantically or platonically.
I appreciate the attention paid in this otherwise-epic tale of kingdoms, gods, and magic to the interpersonal and intimate: friendships, romances, families. Sayeh has a driven and ruthless adoration for her toddler son, borne late in life and through the magic of a goddess allowing her to conceive. Mrithuri, unwilling as she is to seek a suitor and give up her rule to a man, has connections with the animals that she can communicate with through inherited magic—and also, eventually, to the Dead Man. Attachments to parents, children, lovers, and friends is the engine that drives all things in the world of the Eternal Sky, a fact that epic or mythic narratives often elide.
This is, of course, a point I’ve made in previous reviews as well. The same sustenance that I garnered from the prior trilogy in this world is on offer, here: a nuanced exploration of culture, sexuality, gender, and politics that never loses sight of the singular individual human in all that grandeur. Moments of humor and hubris are sprinkled throughout. No one is above their own realities as a physical person whose bones might break, whose magic might not rescue them, who might manipulate an augury for the sake of a kingdom. Of our four protagonists, two are transgender. The physical and emotional experiences of these people as people form the backbone of the novel as it spreads across its fantastical and massive scope.
All in all, The Stone and the Skull offers us an introduction as opposed to a closed arc, which makes it difficult to discuss in absentia of the rest. There are characters to grow fond of as they grow fond of each other, so as to engage us more in the upcoming struggles. There are prophecies and quests: a dragon’s stone located in a poisonous cursed land that might give Mrithuri the heir she needs without being forced to sacrifice her autonomy, Sayeh taken captive against her will and wounded after her son is kidnapped, the Gage and the Dead Man forced to separate paths to each serve a different portion of the war. The novel ends with these various roads opened up to their destined walkers, and I expect in the second installment we’ll finally begin to see the true stakes unfold.
I’ll be anxiously waiting.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.