fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Patricia McKillip The Bards of Bone PlainThe Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip

In This Land, the Bards Have Forgotten Their Magic…

Patricia McKillip does it again! Unique among fantasy writers for her dreamy prose, her ability to meld complex characterization with original fairytale plots, and her ability to slip in a clever twist or two before the story’s end, McKillip returns to form after the slightly lackluster The Bell at Sealey Head (great build-up, terrible climax) with The Bards of Bone Plain.

For his final school essay, Phelan Cle decides to write about Bone Plain, the mysterious plain-lands where his eccentric father Jonah spends most of his days excavating for lost riches. Dotted with standing stones and the subject of many poems and ballads in the bardic tradition, Bone Plain seems an easy topic with which Phelan can complete his education. But he soon finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into the ancient records that recount the history of the bard Nairn, an enigmatic figure linked closely with Bone Plain.

Phelan’s discoveries are connected to the Princess Beatrice’s own work alongside his father on the plain. Uninterested in the life of a princess, Beatrice spends her days among Jonah Cle’s archeologists as they dig up the relics of the old bard school, hoping to glean some understanding of the past. The comedic aspect of this novel concerns Beatrice’s attempts to avoid her family’s obsession with impending weddings and her disapproving mother’s constant threats to remove Beatrice to the more lady-like setting of a faraway relative’s house.

But there is a parallel plotline at work alongside Phelan and Beatrice’s sojourns into the past. Though they exist in what seems to be a quasi-Victorian period that comes complete with steam-powered cars and garden parties, alternating chapters take us back to the more typical medieval era that permeates the fantasy genre, revealing the actual history of the enigmatic Nairn and his journey from a pig-keeper to the tragic circumstances that earned him titles such as “the Unforgiven” and “the Wandering Bard.”

As the story unfolds, these two plotlines begin to merge as the past inevitably rushes up to greet the present. As the mysteries of Nairn’s past are revealed one by one, the present-day populace is absorbed with the upcoming competition that decides who holds the position of the king’s court bard. Phelan’s friend Zoe is the favourite among the competitors, but the arrival of a black-clad traveller from the north throws her victory into doubt. This visitor clearly knows more than he’s letting on — more about Phelan’s research and Beatrice’s archaeological discoveries, not to mention more about Bone Plain itself.

As always, McKillip’s work must come with a disclaimer to new readers: that her prose and style will catch you off-guard with its dreamy, vague quality. Often it envelops the plot and characterization behind a veil of adjectives and similes that take a few seconds to untangle, but which always add to the richness and mystery of the reading experience. It is best described by K.Y. Craft’s exquisite cover art: beautiful and intricate and filled with minute detail that demands close inspection.

There are a few slip-ups here and there: a last-minute romance seems tacked up and out-of-nowhere, and her main antagonist (if we can even call him that) is a little too ambiguous for his own good, but for the most part this is vintage McKillip. Her fascination with language, music, history, and the relationship between past and present are well utilized in previous books, and here they are refined and thematically connected into a satisfying arc of exploration and discovery. McKillip’s characters are sparkling with life, though perhaps a little underdeveloped in this case, and she never gets bogged down in a quagmire of endless world-building and excessive detail. Best of all, McKillip’s novels are self-contained. One does not have to collect a dozen or so books in order to get the complete story — here you will get a clear beginning, middle and end within the pages of a single book. If only other fantasists could be so generous to their readers!

The Bards of Bone Plain demands a re-read almost the very instant that you finish it, just to better appreciate the way its interconnected stories and characters relate to one another in light of the final chapters’ revelations. Personally, I think it’s one of McKillip’s most accomplished works, though she has yet to dislodge Alphabet of Thorn from its place as my absolute favourite.

~Rebecca Fisher

fantasy book reviews Patricia McKillip The Bards of Bone PlainPatricia 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.

~Kat Hooper

The Bards of Bone Plain — (2010) Available at Audible. Publisher: The newest novel from the World Fantasy Award-winning author of The Bell at Sealey Head. With “her exquisite grasp of the fantasist’s craft” (Publishers Weekly) Patricia A. McKillip now invites readers to discover a place that may only exist in the mystical wisdom of poetry and music. Scholar Phelan Cle is researching Bone Plain-which has been studied for the last 500 years, though no one has been able to locate it as a real place. Archaeologist Jonah Cle, Phelan’s father, is also hunting through time, piecing history together from forgotten trinkets. His most eager disciple is Princess Beatrice, the king’s youngest daughter. When they unearth a disk marked with ancient runes, Beatrice pursues the secrets of a lost language that she suddenly notices all around her, hidden in plain sight.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.