Monday, February 7, 2011

The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip, a book review

I always look forward to new books by Patricia McKillip, so I was excited to learn about Bards of Bone Plain and read it as soon as I possibly could(1).

It lived up to the anticipation.

Phelan Cle, bardic student, is looking for a simple topic to write his final paper on before graduating. He chooses to discuss the location and events on Bone Plain, a legendary place where a long ago bardic challenge cost a legendary bard his music and condemned him to an endless life without it. Phelan figures there is so little history behind this legend that he will easily be able to sift out the few bits of truth, write a paper, graduate, and think no more of it. Meanwhile, he also has to deal with his father, Jonah Cle, who is constantly drunk and/or lost in the archeological digs he sponsors. Princess Beatrice is busy at the digs, far more fascinated with discovering the past than in attending parties and behaving as a princess should. Her father encourages this; her mother is less pleased. In the course of the dig, she finds a piece of metal engraved with a strange sign, one which fascinates her and leads to the further discovery of a strange doorway. Enter also a mysterious bard (present day) whose appearance angers Jonah and who appears to be bringing magic back into the kingdom and then, through Phelan's researches, the past bard Nairn, who is fascinated by similar mysterious bard in his time.

The lines between legend and history slowly blur and the significance of the two converging timelines becomes apparent as Phelan and Beatrice work to unravel the significance of their finds and to protect their kingdom from magic that may or may not be threatening it.

This being a McKillip book, there are also several minor characters, each with their own concerns and point of view. This being McKillip, everything does pull together to make a coherent, cohesive, elegant tale with a satisfying end.

This being McKillip, I will need to read it more than once to fully appreciate it; one of the reasons I love her work so much is that there is always a good surface story and a number of layers to be uncovered through rereading.

Bards of Bone Plain is one of her more complex tales and weaves in a number of familiar elements: There is a mysterious language, a powerful figure who may or may not be menacing, a riddle from the past influencing the present, music that is more than melody, complicated father-son relationships, and mild romance. It does not feel like a repeat, more like there is a slow buildup of layers, a new angle and a new jewel each time a book comes out.

It used to be a rule that I loved all of McKillip's books but especially "every other" book . I've now lost track of which book I'm on, but I'd put Bards of Bone Plain into the "especially" category.

It's also a book where a number of her favorite elements come together: There are multiple towers, some in the same place, strange languages needing deciphering,

(1) As with the Pegasus review, he timing of thi book review reflects holiday busy-ness and bad colds, not the timing of the reading.


  1. This is in my tbr stack--I'm glad to know it's one of the great ones!

  2. I am SO glad to hear this. I am always terrified when an author I love (and I list McKillip as my favourite of favourites) releases something new even though I'm also thrilled to pieces. I have not read this yet, but I've owned it since the day it came out. Relief!

  3. Kiirstin, I know what you mean. I almost always delay a little bit in reading a new book by a favorite author, even if I'm absolutely sure I will like it because--what if I don't?