In 2015’s Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear introduced us to Karen and her compelling, colloquial storyteller’s voice. Stone Mad follows on from that story, with Karen recovered from her injuries and enjoying a nice dinner out at a fancy hotel with her lover and partner Priya before they move into the farmhouse they’ve bought together. But events, in the form of a pair of travelling Spiritualist sisters, rather intervene…
Well, the Spiritualist Arcade sisters, Hypatia and Hilaria Arcade; Mrs Micajah Horner, the widow of a famous showman; and a deeply unhappy borglum. Karen’s impetuous nature means she puts herself forward to investigate and/or help the Arcade sisters without consulting Priya, who disapproves. Their resulting argument—Karen hot-blooded and stubborn, with her back up; Priya stubborn and hot-blooded in a different way—is unresolved, with Priya headed home without Karen, when the hotel starts shaking on its foundations. Karen, Mrs Horner, and the Arcade sisters have a spot of trouble looking for the way out when the ceiling collapses in the lobby, and Karen finds herself face to face with a borglum who may have been responsible for a dozen deaths.
But that’s not what this story is about. No: Stone Mad is about Karen and Priya’s relationship, about Karen breaking Priya’s trust over—initially—taking offence at a misunderstanding and needing to earn it back, about Priya’s anger at Karen existing alongside their mutual love and affection. It’s a story about Karen needing to learn that her decisions don’t just affect her alone, anymore, because she’s chosen to build a life with Priya, and a story about how relationships take work—work at communication, work at mutual respect, work at fitting yourself to the other person as they fit themselves to you—and how people can break your heart, and you can break theirs.
It’s a story about how love makes you vulnerable—how Karen’s love for her dead parents opens her up to manipulation by the Arcade sisters, even though they’re not really aiming their manipulations mostly at her; how Mrs. Horner has reacted to people trying to prey on her love for her dead husband to exploit her; and how Karen and Priya’s love for each other has given them great power to hurt each other. They have to learn how to live with that power over each other, and how to live with their responsibility for and to each other—and that’s not an easy thing for anyone to learn, much less people as young as Karen and Priya.
Bear deftly weaves this exploration of relationships and vulnerabilities, betrayal and compromise, around confidence women possibly working a scam, a hotel shaking on its foundations, and the threatening incomprehensibility of the borglum—pacing outside incidents with Karen’s increasing realisation of how she “done fucked up good this time” when it comes to her relationship with Priya. (The Singer sewing machine makes yet another dramatic appearance at a very apposite point.)
Though this is a short volume—while being a long novella—the characters are elegantly drawn as entire individuals. We see them through the lens of Karen’s perceptions, of course, but they come across as whole people, with needs and desires of their own, and lives that extend beyond the page. Mrs Horner in particular is fascinating, with a whole history implied between her, her late husband, and the Arcade sisters with a minimum of space. The Arcade sisters, too, leap off the page—possibly sisters, possibly an act—as fascinating characters with lives and histories behind them.
For all that Stone Mad has a lot to say about relationships, it avoids didacticism. Bear has an argument here, but it’s definitely an argument, with no easy answers. The only answer, it seems, is compassion and choosing to be kind—the same vein of kindness that runs underneath the entire story.
I loved Stone Mad. I found it powerful and deeply full of meaning. As well as entertaining: Karen is a magnificently engaging character, and a compelling one. I hope to see Bear write more about her, because she’s enormously fun.
Stone Mad is available March 20th from Tor.com Publishing.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.