I like finding what's lost...Or rather what's forgotten, since nothing I find is truly lost. I like piecing people's lives together, knowing what they made, where they kept it. It's like searching for the beginning of a story. You keep going back and back, and the beginning keeps moving ahead of you, always older than what you hold in your hand, always pointing beyond what you know.
McKillip is back in full form. I had some doubts in the beginning, wondering if this was just the same stuff I’ve seen before, but as the story went on, it found its feet, its voice, or maybe I just stopped worrying or caring. Who knows. I think this is her best in a long time. McKillip lost me completely with Solstice Wood—I decided, for me at least, that it was a fluke—The Bell At Sealy Head was better, but still not up to work she has done previously, but this one, The Bards of Bone Plain…we’re back with classic McKillip. Love. It.
McKillip’s characters are good. Phelan, who doesn’t understand his father, Jonah. And whose lack of understanding suddenly makes sense and is understood by the end. Zoe, the young bard with the powerful voice, and of course Nairn, who you can’t help feel compassion for as he is drawn into something he doesn’t fully want to be a part of and yet can’t help himself due to his own insecurities and wants.`
Unlike some of her other words, Bards of Bone Plain is more plot driven than character driven. We have two stories: one that occurs in the present day city of Caerau and one telling the story of Nairn, in fable form, who exists in the stories and legends of the land and whose tale we follow before Caerau is even founded. We see the parallels of Zoe and Nairn as they find secrets in the Circle of Days and play the magic of the land in their wild voices. Then, in the modern day tale, we see Beatrice and Jonah Cle digging up artifacts from Nairn’s day, trying to determine what secrets they hold, and what became of Nairn, who disappeared after the great bardic competition. Then, of course, there is Phelan, Jonah’s son, who has chosen to research the mysterious Bone Plain for his research topic, a plain we see flashing again and in again in Nairn’s own tale.
The parallels become more and more apparent as the story progresses, finally tangling together at the end.
There is a common trope in folklore: stranger coming to a contest called by a king, of no family, of no wealth. He is usually the good guy and wins and finds glory, but what if he’s the bad guy?
Also folklore is riddled with challenges that the hero wins. But what happens to those that lose?
I feel as if those were some of the questions that inspired this book. They formed the first foundations and bones of it and then the flesh was built around it in the themes and words that McKillip is most comfortable with. I saw bits from her other books: this was from The Riddle Master of Hed, that was from Alphabet of Thorn, and still all of this was found in most of her books and even some short stories.
If I could critique any part of this magical work, it would be that there were some abrupt character revelations at the end. Beatrice’s and Phelan’s relationship seemed to almost sprout from nowhere to the point where I just didn’t buy it. I understood why it was important to the plot, but beyond that I just didn’t buy it. There were parts too, at the end, that seemed rushed in a way that I just can’t seem to put my finger on.
Of course, maybe this was because my eyes were glued to the page, trapped as they always are with McKillip, with words.
The Bards of Bone Plain, a must read and maybe another World Fantasy Award nomination.