Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to her critically acclaimed epic fantasy world of the Eternal Sky with a brand new trilogy.
The Stone in the Skull, the first volume in her new trilogy, takes readers over the dangerous mountain passes of the Steles of the Sky and south into the Lotus Kingdoms.
The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.
They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered bits of a once great Empire.
The Lotus Kingdoms
#1 The Stone in the Skull
The Eternal Sky Trilogy
#1 Range of Ghosts
#2 Shattered Pillars
#3 Steles of the Sky
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The mountain wore a mirrored mask. Ice sheathed the sheer face rising above both a steep river valley and the melancholy man in the red coat below. That ice reflected a pale sun that blazed light without heat. The glacier shimmered against a sky like glass, so limpid and still that it seemed each of the encircling peaks held its breaths against some whispered promise.
The ice-gilt mountains were themselves reflected, and bent toward a vanishing point in the polished egg-shape of another mirrored mask, this one much smaller. This mirror made up the face — the entire head — of a brass man who toiled mechanically up the slope of the notch below and between the snow-bright peaks. A wrap of cowl had fallen back from his featureless metal skull. His heavy hands gleamed as if they wore brass gauntlets. His brass feet were strapped into iron-thorned crampons without benefit of boots.
He climbed without urgency.
The crampon spikes bit into the ice of a river made into stone by the cold. A hawser thick as a woman's wrist draped over the brass man's shoulder. It stretched behind him on a weighty arc, reaching back to the curved prow of a strange ship: square-rigged, boasting a lofty reptilian figurehead gallantly painted in red and gold — but resting on two curved, ice-encased runners that bore it over the surface of the stone-hard river as if glass slid oiled on glass. A pilot stood on the little platform at the back of the bowsprit, peering up at the slopes above through a glass. Though it was early in the winter for avalanches, it was never too early for care.
Behind that ship was another, its dragon head limned in azure with copper gilt, drawn by four of the shaggy nimble oxen common to the region, as well as seven people with their own iron cleats strapped over their fleece-and-fur-lined boots. Behind that was a third, in shades of orange and crimson, likewise being dragged by its erstwhile passengers and a pair of the hairy yaks. And at the back of the line was the fourth and final ice-ship, painted wood mimicking carven jade and beryl, with its complement of laborers and cattle, and behind that walked several people considered unsuited to heavy hauling by dint of size, rank, age, status as paying customers, or infirmity.
The man in the red coat followed them all. He was last in line because he chose to be last in line. And because he was watching behind and below, as befitted a caravan guard — which was what he was. At least, it was what he was today, though the caution of the guardian was not the only anxiety gnawing in his breast.
He was a Dead Man, or he had been, and he wore the name of his former profession still. He and the other walkers stayed to the edge of the river for two reasons. First, they did not have cleats — those were reserved for the people hauling the becalmed ice-ships — and so they sensibly kept to the rougher ice and better traction along the bank. Second, the four ice-ships dragged and groaned in their heavy traces.
The pilots made a profession of bringing people safely through the mountains called the Steles of the Sky, it was true. And it was true also that it was mere superstition to cling to the riverbanks, when if by some mishap the ice-ships were to break loose they were unlikely to meekly follow the course of the river back down again.
Even knowing this, the Dead Man still edged off to the left whenever he could. It made him feel a tiny bit safer, even if they were walking from a place where he had never belonged to another one where he expected to feel restless and alone once more.
He had learned young that it was fruitless to worry about things he could not control. And there was very little here that he could have any effect on, but he could not seem to find his calm, or — as his long-lost beloved Zillah would have said with a smile, his resigned soldier's center — and let events take what course they would.
It wasn't the caravan duty that still had him so agitated, when they had left Asmaracanda months before, and unless you counted the Lizard-Folk brigands and the wildfire in the grasslands, those months had been mostly uneventful. No, what he was worrying about — still — was that it had been months.
He and the Gage carried a message, and that duty was the real motivation for their travel. Because they had been entrusted with it by the so-called Eyeless One: the most powerful Wizard in the world's greatest city, which was the teeming market center called Messaline.
The mere existence of that message, and his charge to deliver it, left the Dead Man jittering. Wizards generally had terrible, selfish reasons for what they did, but the Eyeless One was different. This duty came from a being who had preserved Messaline in its time against plague and invasion. And while the Dead Man had no idea what catastrophe might result from a failure, he was confident that it would be far worse than a mere destroyed caravan and a few dozen souls perished in the snow.
As if to give the lie to his thoughts, the wreckage of other caravans were heaped here and there, abandoned under a halfhearted cover of drifted snow, providing no additional reassurance. Since breaking camp that morning, the caravan had passed at least a half-dozen shattered wagons and staved ice-ships, eyeless and picked-over as scavenged carcasses. In summer, there was the danger of avalanche. In winter, there was ... well, there was the winter.
Like the brass-fitted Gage at the top of the column, the Dead Man had no public name in particular. Unlike the Gage, he hadn't neglected his cowl, and wore a veil drawn up to conceal (and warm) his face, leaving revealed only a set of eyes that few dared meet. He wore the red, felted, skirted coat that marked him as a Dead Man, one of the elite royal guards of a caliphate that no longer exactly existed. He had not set the livery of his fallen empire aside, even though it was tattered, much-patched, and faded to a turmeric color in places, and though he wore another and bulkier overcoat on top. And although there were, per se, no Dead Men anymore. Not the proper sort, with capital letters, in any case, though the Dead Man assumed that the other, improper sort would always be leaving the world.
He was cold in the felted coat, despite the layers of other garments beneath and over it. And he was anxious to the bone. Anxious because the caravan was a fortnight behind schedule. Anxious because he had promised someone to complete a task he was given to understand was critical, and critically timed. And that anxiety, that need to be moving, would not leave him alone.
He knew it helped nothing when he invented scenarios of disaster and cast himself, his partner, and their cargo of dire importance in the leading roles. When he wrote tragedies that began with the loss of a note and ended with the loss of a kingdom. And yet, the worm of urgency gnawed behind his breastbone anyway, spoiling his frozen and dried and rewarmed-with-boiled-tea dinners, making even exhausted sleep ragged. If he didn't know better, if he didn't trust the Eyeless One nearly as he trusted his own Scholar-God, he'd swear he had been cast under a geis.
Every inevitable and perfectly routine delay along the way — storms, and illness, and difficulties in obtaining supplies — added to his burden of anxiety. He wanted the job done, his boots off, and a well-earned cup of wine. And yet there were still the mountains to get past, and beyond them a half-dozen warring princedoms.
And yet, this mail must go through.
He sweated from the steepness of the pass, and feared the sweat freezing in his clothing. He was lean as sinew, and that was part of his misery of chill. The mountains were another element: it was colder here than he had ever known it could be, and even the yak-felt stuffing his boots and his heavy mittens could not keep him from feeling it, though the good clothes kept his fingers and toes from freezing solid.
The Dead Man acknowledged that these factors had some bearing on the shiver in his aching joints and rising up his spine. But as he scanned the sky above and the slopes to either side, he could not help but slide a mittened hand under the flap of his overcoat and touch the hilt of his curved sword. This chill he felt was no mere artifact of the mountain winter, but something inner, and he knew that because it was also no novelty. He'd felt the like before, and knew it for a premonition.
His lips moved in silent prayer to the Scholar-God: Count on Your beaded necklaces blessings and forgivenesses for this unfortunate one, Most Holy. Dip Your sacred nibs in ink of jewel colors and scribe in the book of Luck good fortune for this unworthy. Then he wondered what she could do for him, so far from his home and her power, here under the strange sky of strange gods whose names he did not know.
The Dead Man paused for a moment, huffing as he watched the caravan creep incrementally away. Far ahead, the Gage trudged up, implacably. Technically, they were guards — well, they'd signed on as guards because they were traveling to the Lotus Kingdoms with that private message anyway, and they might as well get paid twice for the same trip if they were going — and not draft animals, but the Dead Man had never known the Gage to turn down any task that needed doing.
Maybe invulnerable immortality got boring. The Dead Man, being neither, could not have said.
He pulled into place the slitted wooden mask that protected his eyes, somewhat, from glare, trying to seat it where its inadequate padding would gouge neither chilblains nor pressure sores. He'd catch up in a moment. That feeling of anxiety, of looming threat, was not subsiding. Was worsening into an apprehension of immediate danger, and the Dead Man trusted his instincts too much to shrug it off. Especially now, especially here. He let his attention wander from the Gage and the ice-ships and the teamsters to the passengers who trudged on ahead. Perhaps the threat would come from one of them?
The majority of the gaggle of fur-swaddled, brightly dressed walkers seemed to make less of the slope than the Dead Man did. He supposed that was because they were mostly rather a lot younger, but there was also the matter of the circus.
The Dead Man was an accomplished swordsman — raised to it, and trained in dealing death since he was old enough to pull himself upright with the assistance of a sword and babble at his nursemaids. That was what it meant to be a Dead Man. And he had thought himself fit.
That was before he'd spent two months with three dozen or so youthful acrobats from Song. They were tireless, limber, and prone to breaking into uphill sprints through the snow just for high spirits, like so many colts. Then they inevitably had the energy for an hour or two of vaulting, juggling practice, and choreography in camp each night, when all the Dead Man wanted to do was shovel in a bowl of food — the hotter and richer the better — and tumble into sleep while the Gage took the night watch.
The mountains were glorious under the stars. The Dead Man was well and thoroughly sick of them. He wanted a hot bath and a warm bed and a cup of tea that hadn't been brewed off the same stewed leaves two or three times. Or a pot of coffee, sweet and rich with cream. Even better.
There were some additional travelers beyond the circus, and by and large the Dead Man noticed them less because they didn't annoy him. He'd been raised immune to the peculiarities of nobility and the wealthy, and the rest of his charges comprised two merchants, a man who claimed to be a merchant and was probably a smuggler, a minor Song prince and his entourage, a minor Uthman bey and his entourage, and a noblewoman from Ctesifon traveling to be married in the Lotus Kingdoms — or, as the locals called them, Sarath-Sahal or Sahal-Sarat, depending on which of the two major local dialects you were dealing with.
The noblewoman had only a maid and two guards and largely kept to herself, as was proper. The bey was walking; the Song prince was being carried, for the nonce, in a small collapsible sedan chair. It looked less comfortable than walking, given how his attendants lurched and struggled with the ice and snow.
Well, these people were the Dead Man's responsibility, all. No matter how he felt about them.
He would get them to the Lotus Kingdoms hale and hearty, as was proper. He'd only failed a charge of protection once in all his life, so he allowed himself a brief moment of acknowledgment as to how he might be good at it. Then he commenced again to climb.
He wasn't alone in that chain of thought. Above, roustabouts called encouragement to the trudging passengers, and what passed for rough reassurances: "We've climbed this pass every year since the Rasan revolution! We haven't killed a whole caravan yet!"
They were having a little fun at the passengers' expense. The Dead Man was sure that that was all.
The Dead Man turned his head once more, scanning the bright peaks and the knife-cut, shadowed canyons. Earning his pay, even though he didn't expect to be needed. There was that prickly premonition, sure. But it didn't always mean anything. And it didn't always come when it could be useful, either.
There was nothing in this life that you could count on. Not even the intervention of the devoutly worshipped divine.
The Dead Man didn't expect bandits. This would be a damned fine place to starve in the winter, if you were a bandit. Once snow closed the pass, nothing would be getting through for months. No caravans to rob would mean no source of food, with predictable results. But there were other dangers.
He saw the plume of snow burst into the air from the slope above before anyone else except for possibly — possibly — the Gage. He saw the sinuous shape slide into flight from the cover of the drifts above and he saw the frozen veils thrown wide as wings snapped out, particles turning, turning, glittering in the painful light. His eye took in the long neck, the fluted tail stretched rigid to counterbalance as the ice-wyrm took wing.
As a swordsman of decades of experience, his professional opinion rapidly concluded that a saber wasn't worth a damned thing under these circumstances.
The Dead Man reached for his gun.
Bright sun shining through translucent wings picked out the colors of snow, silver, ivory, palest dove in twining patterns like intermingled veins, like the reaching branches of bare trees. Light glazed the swift form, stark against a transparent welkin. Then the shadow fell over the caravan, and the sound reached them — not the roar or shriek the Dead Man had anticipated, but just an echoing hiss.
Heads turned. People and livestock froze as if they were mice in the shadow of a hawk. The Dead Man heard one teamster curse, low and fluently, just loud enough to carry in the still air, over the echoing ice.
The wyrm turned, an impossible writhing, a flick of its wings and a reversal within its own length as eloquent as any darting trout within its stream. The wyrm passed over them, low and contemplative, so close the Dead Man felt the wind of its wings and saw the glacial, crystalline eye. The thing was as long from nose to tail as a seagoing vessel, though not as big as a dragon. Its perusal minded him of a sultan idly considering a banquet, wondering with which sweetmeat he should begin.
Because the Dead Man was looking, he saw the moment when the Gage resettled the hawser over his shoulder and dug in — hauling harder, and unbelievably, speeding up as he approached the crest of the notch. It wasn't a bad idea: they were pathetically exposed where they were, and the Gage couldn't exactly let go of the rope.
But — below the Gage and above the Dead Man — cattle lowed and struggled, their hooves thrashing on the ice as they fought against their yokes to run. People pushed and shouted, scattering in singles and small clumps, skidding and falling in ice and snow.
The wyrm reversed itself once more, making a sweeping pass over the valley behind them and coming in on a sharp, swooping glide. This, the Dead Man thought. This was a strike, a raptor's stoop to the prey. The predator's trajectory was designed, he realized, to herd them higher in the pass, where the crest would offer them up to the wyrm's talons with a minimum of risk to the beast.
The Dead Man stood between the wyrm and the caravan.
Excerpted from "The Stone in the Skull"
Copyright © 2017 Sarah Wishnevsky Lynch.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book kept me captivated without much action at all. The storytelling and the authors way capturing your attention make this book all the worthwhile! Jordan Dillon
I have no idea how to describe the plot of this book in a succinct way that also makes sense. 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, 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 still recognize his title. The Gage is an awesome 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 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 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. 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. I will definitely be reading more work by Elizabeth Bear. 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.
‘The Stone in the Skull’ has many things to recommend it, but one of the first is that this is an epic fantasy that feels vast, filled with wondrous new lands to explore; like the ‘Eternal Sky’ trilogy before it (although this stands quite well by itself), every new vista and the characters encountered there feel both unique and like part of a complete world. Their stories cross as duty and love pull them together, and the result is captivating and exciting. The only flaw is that it feels just a few chapters too long; the character’s arcs come to a nice end (for the first book of a trilogy, anyway), and then continue on a bit longer as new complications arise; it’s only a minor flaw, however, as I’m sure that once I have the next books to read after it I’ll have a much more complete tale to look forward to.