A review by Ghislaine Lai
The Stone in the Skull: The Lotus Kingdoms, Book One
The first in a new trilogy, Elizabeth Bear’s The Stone in the Skull opens with two mercenaries on a dangerous journey—one a Dead Man with no name, the other a Gage, an automaton made of brass and animated by vengeance. Unmoored from their pasts, neither possesses a future. They travel with a caravan through mountains beset with natural dangers and imperilled by looming warlords, on their way to the Rajni Mrithuri. A queen in peril, the Rajni Mrithuri is unwed and determined to keep her throne and her autonomy in the face of the aforementioned scheming warlords as she waits for the two mercenaries and their mysterious package in the hope that they are bringing her salvation.
Then there’s the Rajni Seyah, a prince who declared herself a princess and is now the miraculous, widowed mother of a three-year-old king. Mrithuri’s cousin, Seyah too is threatened by the warlords, men who will not wait around for her son to assume his throne any more than they will wait for her cousin to choose a husband. Worse, the auguries for her own kingdom and the analysis of her scholars warn of an unavoidable disaster: the volcano lying under her city is waking, threatening their water supply and her entire world.
There’s a lot to love here, but the novel takes a while to really warm up. The first third feels as though we’re stuck in the same ice that the caravan is, stewing in the uncertainty and tension of Mrithuri’s wait for the messengers who may or may not be bringing her useless help. We meet Mrithuri’s enemies well before we know them for who they are, and it’s not until the Dead Man and the Gage arrive at her court that the plot barrels forward.
When it does, however, it goes swiftly: having established the persistence and menace of scheming would-be Rajas and the parade of natural and man-made disasters that loom over our protagonists, Bear is free to dive deep and examine the complex personal relationships that arise, from the Gage opening up to one of Mrithuri’s handmaids about his origins, to Sayeh’s connection with an ancient poetess, to Mrithuri’s attraction to the Dead man. The wealth of side characters seems set to blossom both politically and personally in the rest of the series, their groundwork already carefully laid here.
Although they’ve been involved in plenty of action, it’s only once the mercenaries reach the court that the Gage and the Dead Man come to life. They have outlived vengeance and purpose but are unable to keep from involving themselves in the dangers facing Mrithuri’s people, emotionally affected by their lives. The courts of both Rajnis are beautifully described, as are their Indian-based rituals and personal appearance. Their vital political and religious showpieces are paramount to maintaining their power and autonomy, but their human foibles show through. Sayeh loves her son and would do anything to protect him. Mrithuri is addicted to serpent’s venom to keep herself a collected, confident ruler.
The animals in the novel are delightful, majestic and full of personality. The ancient white elephant Hathi plays a vital role in the ceremonies to honour Mother River and picks a single scarlet lotus, auguring for Mrithuri and her people the conflict bubbling throughout the novel. Mrithuri depends on Syama, her faithful bear-dog, to protect her and the snake she needs for the heady high of its bite. Seyah possesses a phoenix, which recites poetry and looks beautiful, but pecks and squawks at her. The more subdued magic of the bond the Rajnis share with these animals contrasts with the power of their allies in intriguing and promising ways.
I’m eager to see where the series goes, with the caravan’s other passengers, the diverging and yet foreseeably converging paths of Seyah and Mrithuri and the prophecy that the Gage and the Dead Man have delivered and must now see through.