Second part of the fantasy trilogy (The Stone in the Skull, 2017) set in the Lotus Kingdoms, splinters of the collapsed Alchemical Empire, where by night a cauled sun gives heat but little light, while days are lit by a brilliant ribbon of stars.
Anuraja, the malevolent, despotic, and ambitious ruler of Sarathai-lae, has captured Sayeh, the princess of devastated Ansh-Sahal. Now, his armies and sorcerers besiege the old imperial seat, Sarathai-tia, ruled by Sayeh's cousin, Mrithuri. A mighty river protects her city, and the rainy season's beginning, so Mrithuri considers her situation impregnable. But what if the rains sorcerously fail? And who among her closest confidants is a traitor? Sayeh, reasoning that she can help Mrithuri by subverting Anuraja, works her wiles on her guards without revealing her concern for her young son, Drupada, who's been kidnapped by Himadra, Anuraja's nominal ally. Himadra, surprisingly, proves to be solicitous of the boy's welfare. Elsewhere, the Gage, an immensely powerful brass automaton with a human soul, introspectively pursues his nebulous mission into a poison desert beneath an alien sky and provides spectacular travelogue. There's plenty of intrigue and interplay among the characters, who have real complexity and depth (with, oddly, one exception), while the lack of action surprises even the characters themselves. It's almost as if the plot's waiting for the author to catch up. Illogically, the good wizards quickly reveal their limitations while the evil sorcerers don't seem to have any—though a yet more powerful player may still be hidden. And once again Bear illuminates the narrative through her talent for linking landscape with character. Yet despite it all, there's a persistent sense that her attention isn't fully engaged.
Despite many alluring parts, this one has to qualify as a disappointment, if only because of Bear's previous lofty standards.