Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: The Bards of Bone Plain

Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 329
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: The Penguin Group
Pub. Date: Dec. 7, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0441019571
Rating: 8 out of 10

The Bards of Bone Plain is a lyrical fantasy that melds a remote, legendary past with a steam-driven modernity. The author, Patricia A. McKillip, neatly weaves an unfolding plot, populated with believable, attractive people, written with solid characterization and motivation.

The hardcover, provided by the publisher to Dreams and Speculation, was physically pleasant to hold and read, with a beautiful cover illustration by Kinuko Y. Craft. The warm, readable typeface was a good match for the text. This book is a pleasure to read in every sense: there are no scenes of horror or suffering; there is no experience of terror or revulsion. The Bards of Bone Plain flows like a dreamy caress.

I’ll get my niggling criticisms out of the way first, so I can lavish attention on the strengths and leave you with a good impression of the work. Note: there are no spoilers in this review.

Despite the rich, carefully crafted language in evidence throughout this book, a few awkward choices threw me off in the first few pages. I had a hard time understanding the first paragraph, in which Phelan finds his father on a riverbank in the early morning dark. A tale was drifting drunkenly? Oh, no, it’s a voice reciting a tale. McKillip tries to convey Phelan’s blindness in the gloom, a disorienting experience with magical overtones, but I was confounded to read that Phelan was talking with a pile of stone, which was his father, with so little contextual preparation.

Either I became more comfortable with McKillip’s style, or these sorts of convoluted locutions were thankfully absent in the rest of the book:
“He was a fine musician, ferociously hardworking except on anything that wasn’t music.”
I had to read that twice to realize that he worked ferociously on everything except music.
“The class he taught was held, by tradition, or on days it didn’t rain, in the oak grove on the crown of the hill.”
Eh? So which was it, tradition, or weather? Maybe it was both: “by tradition, weather permitting”?

Now that my quibbles are out of the way I will return to my mostly-glowing review.

The author successfully tells two tales at once, echoing each other, whose connection is revealed later in the book. We are first introduced to Phelan Cle, a young man from a prominent family, who finds his father Jonah drinking alone by the river, as he often does. We learn that Phelan is a gifted, advanced student at the ancient school for bards, but he lacks ambition. In Chapter Two there is an abrupt shift to a much earlier time, and we are introduced to Nairn, the pig-singer, whose legend intimately informs the bardic traditions of the land.

McKillip does a splendid job of exposition, gently and gradually illuminating the world, expertly employing expository devices, such as Phelan teaching his class of younger students that “all poetry, and therefore all riddles, are rooted in the Three Tricks of Bone Plain,” which are The Turning Tower, The Inexhaustible Cauldron, and The Oracular Stone.

Each Nairn chapter is preceded by a brief historical analysis, giving us modern reference points for understanding that part of the story. The alternating chapter scheme is deftly written, and I never found myself confused. The prologues are taken from Phelan’s thesis on Nairn, a popular subject that he initially thinks will be simple, but ultimately leads him down a path to deep understanding.

The narrative proceeds at a gentle pace, with hints of foreboding, until we finally meet our antagonist in Chapter Nine, whose appearance pulls the two parallel stories together. In Phelan’s world there is no place for magic, yet bards were believed in the past to be mages, working spells with their music. Zoe, a colleague and friend of Phelan’s, tells another student,
“…we may be seeing only the remnants of something long gone from this world. Maybe you and I were just born with primitive eyes. Or hearts. Born with a gift for something that doesn’t exist anywhere any longer, and the recognition, the longing for it is all we’ll ever know.”
In Nairn’s world, magic has been lost, and his teacher guides him to rediscover its power through the study of runes, which guide the plots of both stories. His teacher explains,
“Because it’s the language of secrets, the language of power, the language of lost arts. The word only looks like ‘water’. Beneath the surface, it becomes something else entirely. And you have the gift to use that power.”
And later,
“You found the magic in the words; they spoke to the magic in you. That’s the beginning of power. You were born with the great gift for it, but you had no use for it until you met me. No one here could explain it to you. The bards of the land forgot their magic long ago.”
The magic system and social structures seem to be based on Celtic culture and Druidic ideas of power inherent in nature.

The conclusion of the book finally brings magical experience into Phelan’s modernity. There isn’t much sense of agency behind the magic, and the suggestions of malevolence are under developed, and I found that somewhat unsatisfying, but that’s part of the poetry of The Bards of Bone Plain. What’s missing is a third, hinted, but untellable story that precedes these two stories of Nairn and Phelan. That it’s lost in time is the major theme.

Beatrice explains why she enjoys archeology, reminding us of why we like stories like this:
“I like — I like recognizing — I mean finding — what’s lost. Or rather what’s forgotten. Piecing people’s lives together with the little mysteries they leave for us. I like seeing out of earlier eyes, looking at the world when it was younger, different. Even then, that long ago, it was building the earliest foundations of my world. It’s like searching for the beginning of a story. You keep going back and back, and the beginning keeps shifting, running ahead of you, always older than the puzzle piece you hold in your hand, always pointing beyond what you know.”
The Bards of Bone Plain is a book with language, characters, and images to savor. The author’s lyrical text reflects the bards’ evocative powers to move listeners with stories, poetry, and music.

This review was originally published at Dreams & Speculation.

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