While fans of a certain hugely popular, multi-volume series grow impatient with the number of years that transpire between installments, Elizabeth Bear has been able to complete one epic fantasy trilogy and start another.

The award-winning author of the “Eternal Sky Trilogy” and “Karen Memory” doesn’t enjoy the high profile of George R.R. Martin, but her fantastical universe provides a similarly irresistible mix of politics, sorcery and derring-do. The Brookfield, Massachusetts-based Bear understands the game she’s playing, and she has the ambition and the follow-through to make her own unique mark upon the genre.

With her new novel, “The Skull in the Stone,” Bear returns to the Central Asian-inflected setting of “Range of Ghosts,” “Shattered Pillars” and “Steles of the Sky.” She moves her narrative’s spotlight, though, focusing on a mostly new cast of characters in the Lotus Kingdoms, the politically precarious remnants of a half-forgotten empire and an analog for the Indian subcontinent.

“The Stone in the Skull” opens with an attack by an ice dragon on a caravan of ships making their way to the kingdom of Sarathai. Two notable warriors partake of the battle: the Dead Man, a bitter mercenary, formerly a bodyguard to the now-deceased Caliph of Uthman; and the Gage, a magically powered brass automaton with a featureless face and an idiosyncratic outlook on life. Good friends and an impressive fighting team, they have been hired by the world’s most powerful wizard, the Eyeless One, to deliver a message to Sarathai’s ruler, the alluring and adept Mrithuri.

Elizabeth Bear

Before the Dead Man and the Gage can reach her, though, Mrithuri worries that fate is about to turn its hand against her. She receives an ill omen in the form of a red lotus, but she doesn’t need harbingers of supernatural disaster to know that powerful enemies are maneuvering around her in an attempt to reunite the Empire. A disreputable cousin wants to marry and/or murder her, and a crippled ruler known as the Boneless has his own devious plans.

Mrithuri’s best hope for an ally may lie with Sayeh Rajni of Ansh-Sahal, her widowed cousin. The mother of the princeling Drupada, Sayeh witnesses even more ominous portents, including ones that suggest that the waters around Ansh-Sahal are dangerous and on the verge of a physical cataclysm. She must protect her citizens not only from foreign invaders, but from the forces of nature themselves.

Bear knows that her characters fulfill certain generic expectations (mysterious gun-for-hire, inscrutably oracular wizard, amorous young queen), but she is careful to imbue each with hidden talents and motivations.

In what could be a summation of the author’s approach to character development, the Dead Man muses, “Always these reminders that people were layered and complex and had a thousand unexplored crannies. Every man, every woman, was like a vast system of caverns that stretched unimaginably in secret places underground. You could explore somebody for years – decades – and yet you might not even know there was a passage in a particular place, let alone where it led or what it revealed.”

It is that sense of unpredictability that makes “The Stone in the Skull” so enjoyable. The opening chapters aren’t exactly leisurely, but Bear takes the time to establish the parameters of her world, dropping hints about hidden pasts, obscured loyalties and the possibility of betrayal. As well as providing dialogue worthy of the best world-weary comedic duos, the Gage and the Dead Man play critical roles in the plot. So do their female counterparts, Mrithuri and Sayeh, whose competence as leaders is never in question.

“The Stone in the Skull” concludes with battle lines drawn, combatants assembled and a formidable menace ready to be opposed. All the elements of a richly textured saga are in place, ready for further deployment. Even though they might have to wait a year or so for the next installment, Bear’s faithful readers should rejoice in her return to a fascinating fantasy milieu.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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