Once again, I am judging a book by it’s (gorgeous) cover, and for once that was a good life decision. The Bards of Bone Plain cover resembles an ancient tapestry woven by Patricia A. McKillip, one that I wouldn’t mind hanging in my apartment, and faithfully alludes to the deftly woven tale found inside its pages.
Soon to graduate from the bardic school on the hill, unambitious student Phelan Cle begins researching the myth of Bone Plain for his final paper. The mysterious competition on Bone Plain between the two acclaimed bards Nairn and Welkin is an ancient tale, one that has been studied for the last 500 years with no new conclusions to be drawn as to where the plain is located or what truly happened there years before. But when Phelan’s archaelogist father Jonah and his enthusiastic disciple Princess Beatrice unearth a disk with carvings of an ancient language, the mysteries of Bone Plain begin to unravel and an ancient evil returns to hold sway over the kingdom of Beldan.
McKillip’s language is pure poetry, even more so when she’s discussing music, archaeology and bardic mythology. Her words nearly inspired me to take up a harp and a trowel! This book read uniquely, displaying a lyrically fresh approach to fantasy in the sense that the writing was more magical than even the magic-heavy plot. McKillip build a world with a beautiful, complex history, one whose corners were perhaps not all uncovered but whose scope was realistic, perhaps because of the parallels to our world especially in the character’s inner and outer struggles with family, faith, and self-esteem.
These characters make this book, particularly those whose point of view is shown to the reader. Phelan is a slightly lazy skeptic, uninterested in becoming a bard, who nonetheless is devoted to as well as frustrated by his father’s skulking and secrets, especially as he discovers that Jonah knows more about Bone Plain than past scholars. Beatrice bucks the traditional princess stereotype and doggedly pursues her passion while displaying unshakable loyalty to her family and friends. The romance between the two of them is based on friendship and respect, and while unexpected, doesn’t feel forced or like an aside to the main plot. Another key player is Phelan’s (platonic!) best friend Zoe, an accomplished bard whose destiny is to protect the court from the wiles of the suspicious challenger Kelda during the bardic competition.
This competition is the key to the mystery of Bone Plain as Kelda is the same bard who under the name Welkin battled the mythical Nairn, leading to the destruction of the old bardic school and the disappearance of both bards because of their failure to pass the challenges of the Circle of Days. This story and Nairn’s background are slowly unraveled in parallel to the modern-day bardic battle, leading to the surprising reveal that Jonah and Nairn are one and the same since Nairn was cursed to live an immortal, music-free existence after he lost. Because Phelan’s exasperated concern for his father is so movingly relatable, it’s rewarding to see the storylines converge in a way that completes Phelan’s (and the reader’s) understanding of Jonah/Nairn.
I only had two minor complaints. The first regarded the ending, i.e. the rematch between Jonah/Nairn and Welkin/Kelda with the assistance of Phelan and Zoe. The climax seemed to me to be a bit rushed and confusing, with the question of Welkin/Kelda’s true identity and purpose left vague and unsatisfactorily answered. Overall, he seemed more of a distant archetypal evil than a specific villain. The second was disruptive presence of technological devices, such as Beatrice’s car, being too-modern a touch in an otherwise fantastical world. However, her mother’s reaction to her driving and general plebeian state is delightfully humorous, so maybe I’ll give that one a pass.
Still, this book is probably the best in the high fantasy genre that I’ve read so far this year, and may even be up there still in 10 months on the best of 2015 list. I hadn’t read any of McKillip’s works previously, though apparently she’s a giant of the genre, but I will certainly add her to my to-read list.