Elizabeth Bear creates a complex world in The Stone in the Skull. There are different civilizations, different gods, different magics, different forms of life and different skies, all on the same planet. The story is good. It draws you in and slowly reveals secrets in a way that keeps you turning pages.
The book opens in Steles of the Sky with a brass man, The Gage, hauling pulling a ship over a mountain pass as it ported between rivers. The Gage is not really a man, anymore, and is so much more than a man in strength and intelligence. I liked him immediately. There was something about him, a sense of honesty and/or decency, that came through early in the book and never left. Traveling with The Gage is the Dead Man. He is not really dead. The name is a job title that related to his former profession. The Dead Man and The Gage have worked together for years and have a fondness for each other. This unique friendship formed, in my opinion, the spine of the story. Everything was some how related to the two friends.
The other main characters in the book live in the Lotus Kingdoms on the other side of the mountains that The Gage and the Dead Man were crossing. Several kingdoms, all related by blood and formerly one kingdom, jostle for power. The gods are different in the southern and the customs are different. Mrithuri, 24 years old and unmarried, rules one of the kingdoms. Her cousin and uncles circle her waiting for the first sign of weakness to steal her kingdom for themselves. Mrithuri, the Dead Man and The Gage are bound together, although they do not know each other, by the secret entrusted to the two friends to be delivered to Mrithuri’s kingdom.
The universe The Stone in the Skull takes place in is complex. I read the ARC in an ebook format. I think it would have been helpful to have access to basic maps, a glossary and maybe a cast of characters listing. Other readers may not have the same issue I did. I plan on rereading the book in a few months and I am sure it will flow better for me then.
The Stone in the Skull is the first in a planned trilogy. It does end with a cliffhanger. This is the second book by Elizabeth Bear I have read, the first being the fantastic Karen Memory. I recommend The Stone in the Skull for all fans of fantasy.