Patricia A. McKillip,
The Bards of Bone Plain
(Ace, 2010)

A modern sage has observed that just because something happens inside your head, that does not make it any less real. Patricia McKillip displays, in this book, the very real power of words -- sometimes obvious, sometimes as subtle as a weapon left on a mantelpiece at the beginning of a chapter; sometimes magical, sometimes deceptively mundane; mostly inside one's head -- but not always, or only, there.

There are two stories to follow: one in the present, with hero Phelan Cle, his friends and family, and one in the past, with the bard Nairn (called "Pig-Singer," referring to his first audience) and his adventures. Phelan Cle lives in the royal city of Caerau, in a culture that might be called "steampunk" because of the presence of horse-drawn trams, steam engines and the occasional car. He is an unwilling scholar whose father enrolled him in the school for bards; now he's finally nearing the end of his studies and only wants to do enough research for a final paper. For his subject, he chooses Bone Plain, a place whose existence, let alone its location, has never been proved:

"Where," Frazier asked suddenly, "exactly, is Bone Plain? Are we on it?"

"Maybe," Phelan answered, quoting his research. "No one has yet found conclusive evidence for any particular place. Most likely it existed only in the realm of poetry."

With research, as with deep water, one can start by sticking a cautious toe into the stream and end up caught in unexpected undercurrents. That is what happens to Phelan, as he investigates the history of Bone Plain and of the school for bards, helped and hindered by, among others, his eccentric father and his friends Princess Beatrice and Zoe Wren, a bard who comes from a long line of accountants.

Nairn's story is part of that history. His career (after pig-singing) begins as a marching bard to an ill-fated army that is defeated by the bardic magic of the invaders. The invaders' bard, Declan, claims that Nairn has untapped magical potential himself, and the two of them struggle to find and channel a power that neither of them fully understands.

At what point do these two timelines converge, and how? How much of that convergence is real, and how much "only" inside the characters' (or the readers') heads? And what is the mystery that ties the two stories together, and who holds the clues, and in what time? There was, it seems, bardic magic once; does it still exist and is it accessible to the bards of the present Caerau, for good or ill?

Once you start reading and become interested in these and other questions, you will not want to stop until you are satisfied with the answers. The tapestry of characters will intrigue you; each clue to the mystery will tantalize you, and when you do find the answer you will be impressed at where, and how well, it was hidden. Even the snippets of poetry are as lyrical and as well-crafted as the prose. I stayed up late at night, or early in the morning, to see how it ended, and it was worth it.

book review by
Janet Anderson

19 February 2011

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