Patricia McKillip is a must-read author for any true lover of fantasy literature. With a voice all her own, she imbues her work — both the story and the style — with beauty, magic, and wonder. Her latest novel, The Bards of Bone Plain, is just as enchanting as I was expecting it to be. I listened to Audible Frontiers’ version read by Marc Vietor and Charlotte Parry — a nice combination.
Scholar Phelan Cle is nearly finished studying to be a bard and he’s ready to graduate. He’s chosen a fairly easy and unambitious topic for his final paper, something that’s been written about many times before: the myth of Bone Plain. Is it a real place? If so, where is it and what happened there to Nairn, the legendary harpist who disappeared during the first bardic competition hundreds of years ago? Expecting to write a rather dull and inconclusive paper (like all the previous dull and inconclusive papers), Phelan is surprised to discover that his alcoholic father, archeologist Jonah Cle, knows more about Nairn’s story than the scholars do. Finally, Phelan’s interest is piqued, and he sets out in earnest to uncover the past.
Meanwhile, Princess Beatrice, is literally uncovering the past. Much to her mother’s embarrassment, Beatrice prefers to hang out in Jonah Cle’s underground archeological digs in her dusty dungarees rather than attend palace garden parties. When she unearths a strange piece of jewelry, she starts looking for the meaning of the unknown runes carved in it.
But she’s not the only one interested in ancient runes. So is Kelda, the mysterious bard who’s competing against all the other musicians who aspire to be the king’s new court bard. Also competing is Phelan’s friend Zoe, daughter of the palace steward who’s helping Phelan with his data collection. During the competition, it all comes to a head as Phelan’s research, Beatrice’s ancient discoveries, and Zoe’s talent collide.
The Bards of Bone Plain combines the arts and sciences (and mysteries) of archeology, music, language, and history, to create a multi-layered story that’s sure to satisfy both sides of your brain. I enjoyed the academic atmosphere and the way that Phelan’s research paper was used as alternating chapters to present Nairn’s story. In the audiobook edition, only these chapters are read by Charlotte Parry so that they are clearly set apart.
The characters are well-done, though there are so many important ones that we don’t get to know them all as well as we’d like to. I especially liked Princess Beatrice, who drives a steam-powered car and is always trying to balance her courtly duties with her dirty hobbies. She hates the social events she’s required to attend, but she knows that if she pushes her mother too far, she’ll be shipped off to the country to live with her sister’s family. Beatrice’s social blunders and her interactions with her family are delightfully humorous.
If you’re familiar with Patricia McKillip, then you know she writes in a somewhat dreamy and fanciful style that, though lyrical and lovely, is occasionally misty and vague. While the plot of The Bards of Bone Plain is fairly straight-forward, McKillip’s romantic style shrouds some aspects of the plot and characters in mysteries that are never completely cleared up. This sense of wonder is part of what makes her stories work so well as fantasy. The Bards of Bone Plain is another McKillip novel that leaves the reader in awe. It’s a gorgeous story that celebrates the power of music, language, and love.