The Stone in the Skull
By Elizabeth Bear
Hardcover, 366 pages
A Dead Man, a Gage and an androgynous priest meet in a caravan traveling across war-torn lands to deliver a message to a princess under siege.
I have no idea how to describe the plot of this book in a succinct way that also makes sense, so that sentence is all you get. It’s fantasy, with a touch of steampunk and an Asian feel to the world. The book is heavy on political intrigue and geography, yet the characters are so compelling that two potentially boring (for me, anyway) subjects fell neatly into the background.
I don’t normally refer to maps (why? Mostly because I’m lazy), but I found the one in this book particularly helpful in giving me a sense of the world. In the first half of the book, there’s a lot of travel going on and it was nice to get a feel for where the characters were headed.
Oh, the characters. What an unexpectedly varied cast this book has! The Dead Man is not actually dead – I think his title has something to do with his religion or like, former job – his face is just constantly veiled. His home is gone and I got the sense that he’s the “dying breed” type though people recognize his title. The Gage is a sweet fuckin’ automaton built by a wizard and towards the end of the story, his character had some excellent development that I didn’t see coming. There’s a priest of indeterminate gender who is much more powerful than they seem and has a badass golden eye. There are two ruling Rajnis (like princesses or queens, I suppose) who are actually cousins. One is addicted to snake venom because it helps her deal with the stress of ruling alone, the other is of “the third sex” and has to fight to keep her reign so that her young son can rule in the future.
On top of all that there are court wizards (who doesn’t love wizards) both male and female, cat-like people and dragons! There’s even a boneless man. The cast was more diverse than any I’ve come across in a fantasy book in quite some time and I loved it.
I loved the world building too. It wasn’t heavy-handed, yet I felt I really had a grasp on what Bear was going for. I love when an author can accomplish some complex world building without dense chapters of history and geography.
Totally random gripe: There was a sentence that felt incredibly modern and it really pulled me out of the story for a moment.
“Pain is the proof that sometimes God is too busy thinking about blowjobs to do Her work properly, and in the interstices people get hurt.”
I’m not implying that people didn’t use the word “blowjob” in ye olde times, but something about the way this sentence was constructed had me scratching my head. Incredibly minor issue, however.
I do take issue with the end of this book though! It’s a total cliffhanger and I’m mad as hell because this book just came out AND I NEED MORE! I wanna know what happens next right now not in a year or more. I’m going to forget everything by the time the next book comes out (shush, those of you saying how I forget a book a few weeks after I read it).
I will definitely be reading more work by Elizabeth Bear. Fun fact, she’s married to Scott Lynch of Lies of Locke Lamora fame! I knew she was cool! I highly recommend this if you’re looking for something a little different in your fantasy, but be prepared for that ending!
I received this book for free from Tor in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.