The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear

Abandoned February 2023
Recommended for fans of purple prose

I like Elizabeth Bear, but I’m discovering that I like her in the same way I like lilies: in small doses and from a distance. She does elaborate things with language that work for me in small doses–I adored Bone and Jewel Creatures and own a special edition hardcover–but absolutely do not work for me in larger ones. This is the second book of her’s I’ve tried–to my recollection–and although I’ve made it further, it was because I was putting some effort into it. Also, I was on a plane. Honestly, I should have known better. Anything that starts with book one in a fantasy series tends to be no-go for me in my old age, although the current librarian trend to assign everything a time-related label, whether author intended or not, often masks the degree to which books are truly connected. This came up as friend Mimi was thinking about reading Devotion of Suspect X, which is listed as number one in a series that is absolutely not a series in the sense of the ‘closely linked in chronology and plot sequence’ sense of the word. (Honestly, if you aren’t in the mood for digressions, you should probably move on. I’m going to be terribly off-track today).

“In summer, there was the danger of avalanche. In winter, there was … well, there was the winter.”

The narration in this story was more humorous than the others I’ve read by Bear, which undoubtedly kept me going. Yet, as I progressed, I started to wonder more and more about that humor. I felt like it didn’t particularly track. The narration is third person focused, alternating between two different female religious/political rulers; the Gage, a mechanical man animated by the spirit of a dead man; and primarily, the Dead Man “one of the elite royal guards of a caliphate that no longer exactly existed.” But primarily, we are following the Dead Man, who worships one god who he believes is above all others and is rather judgey about everyone else’s multiple gods and semi-deified rulers. He also sounds very world-weary and is eyeballing places he might eventually settle down.

“The world was a dune. It wore on, and things and places and people you had loved or hated or had your heart broken by vanished beneath it and the only mark they left was on your soul. And that was that.”

So it’s a complex emotional tone, which I might have actually liked quite a bit, if I didn’t keep getting interrupted by the convoluted and elaborate prose. This extreme example, for instance, which when I read the first time caused me to pause, consider the intention of an author that just wrote that, and then go back and re-read, just to make sure there wasn’t something more important than I thought:

“A word that by extension meant the thing that acted to cause the mark, and the thing that was acted upon and so became a thing that was marked, and also the mark itself, and precisely and significantly the action of marking that forever linked those things.”

In a Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders asks us to think about stories as an agreement between the reader and the writer. When I read sentences like this, I have to think that the writer isn’t thinking about the reader anymore, that they are thinking about how much they love the words and the sound of their own voice that they can write words that don’t actual mean anything to a story. I mean, she just used 47 words to say something had a feedback loop and we aren’t talking about the McGuffin here. This is just one standout illustration of excessiveness that can be streamlined, helping the reader focus. Saunders also asks writers to follow their voice, so I’m definitely not saying Bear shouldn’t do her prose thing. But someone should rein that in, or send it someone who reads most of the words.

I did enjoy the characterization, though I wasn’t in love with the four different storylines that I just know are all related to Big Events that will undoubtedly Come Together Much Later. This is why I’m not reading fantasy epics these days, but Bear almost drew me in. The characters are interesting and have some depth. The world seems interesting and thought-out, feeling something like an Egyptian delta in the lowlands. There’s semi-interesting politics that happening with the female leads and the Dead Man/Gage action-focused plot gives a nice contrast. I did enjoy the humor of the Dead Man, except when he was being quite prejudiced, but of course, that just adds to the character complexity.

“Just what this expedition was in need of,” the Dead Man said conversationally. “A pirate tiger.”

Just not something I have tolerance for these days, no matter how beautiful. Don’t blame Bear; I have allergies.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear

  1. Ola G says:

    Ouch, that’s not even purple in my dictionary, that’s just incomprehensible drivel! I find that the problem with even good authors is that once they become “known” authors they often lose the magic aid of a good editor. They happen to write nonsense, and they have that nonsense published, because nobody’s telling them no.

    • thebookgator says:

      You are right, that doesn’t even count as purple. Totally agree on the magic aid of a good editor. Honestly, I think the trend for multi-volume, enormous word-count books is not a good thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.