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Smugglivus 2010 Book Review: The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip

Title: The Bards of Bone Plain

Author: Patricia McKillip

Genre: Fantasy

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.

Publisher: Ace
Publication Date: December 2010
Hardcover: 336 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher

Why did I read this book: Although I have only recently discovered Patricia McKillip, I am a definite fan. The Bell at Sealey Head, Ms. McKillip’s 2008 release, enchanted me with its lush prose and effortless storytelling, so I was naturally jumping at the chance to read a new novel from this very accomplished author.


A talented young bard, Phelan Cle nears the end of his studentship but faces the obstacle of choosing a topic and writing his final dissertation. Though Phelan loves music and has skill at his craft, Phelan has a decided lack of ambition, and so for his paper he chooses to write about a well-worn subject: Bone Plain, the elusive and mysterious location where Nairn, the greatest bard (and greatest fool) in history, failed the Three Trials and disappeared forever. Given Phelan’s eccentric family – his father, Jonah, with his constant roaming and love of music but complete inability to play a single note in tune – Phelan’s lack of ambition is an asset. But then Phelan’s research turns up unexpected answers to the location of Bone Plain and the whereabouts of the great, lost Nairn. At the same time Kelda, a mysterious, unparalleled new bard shows up at Caerau – a bard with many of the qualities Phelan has discovered in his research. When the current King’s bard chokes and falls ill unexpectedly, a tournament is held to select the next court bard…with Kelda as the top contender. Though charismatic and talented beyond compare, Phelan and Jonah deeply distrust Kelda and believe him to be a much older, primal creature, and if he should win the King’s ear, there is no telling what may befall the land. With the help of the unconventional Princess Beatrice and female bard Zoe (the only singer with a chance of besting Kelda), Phelan must finish unlocking the secrets of Bone Plain and the lost Nairn – for the fate of the kingdom, even the world, hangs in the balance.

True to style, Patricia McKillip’s new novel is an engrossing, effortlessly written fable. As with The Bell at Sealey Head, this book mixes high nobility, scholars, magicians, and princesses in a setting that is both familiar and otherworldly. The elusive myth of Bone Plain and Nairn, the Unforgiven, the Fool, and the accursed, is revealed throughout the book in alternating chapters between realtime and Nairn’s story, introduced with excerpts from Phelan’s unfolding paper. In books with this type of format, I usually find myself loving one of the storylines more than the other, but this was not the case with The Bards of Bone Plain as I found myself equally enthralled with both the overall story and with Nairn’s tragic history – especially as both the past and present inevitably overlap and intertwine. That said, this is clearly Nairn’s tale, even though it is Phelan’s time period. Nairn’s tragic history, from the pig piper to the greatest bard, to the fallen and defeated challenger, is the stuff of epic fantasy, and I loved it completely.

There’s a magical quality to any Patricia McKillip work; an ability to describe and bring to life fantastical landscapes. And, as the title suggests, this book places a strong emphasis on music, which McKillip effortlessly evokes and weaves into her descriptions and the overall story. For example:

Nairn dropped his eyes, pitched every note, sang every word of longing and passion in the ballad to all the music he had never heard, might never hear, the treasure hoard of it, hidden away like forbidden love behind windowless walls, within indomitable towers. He scarcely noticed when the ballad came to an end; he heard only the longing and loss in his heart. His fingers stilled. He heard an ember keen, a twig snap. No one spoke, except the fire, the wind, the sea. Then, as he stirred finally, he heard an odd ping against the flagstones, then another, as though, beneath his feat, some very ancient instrument were tuning itself.

Beautiful. I’m not quite sure how Patricia McKillip does it, but she’s able to blend music into her very writing – essential, in a book in which music plays so pivotal a role as this one.

Though I loved this book, a few things kept me from embracing it with full abandon. Not all of the characters, especially those in the realtime story (Phelan, Beatrice and Zoe), aren’t quite as nuanced as the writing or overall story, and cannot hold a flame to Nairn’s backstory and his character, seeing who he was and what he eventually became, nor to his mentor and challenger Declan. Also, I found the blend of cars and more modern technology with the traditional fantasy setting a little jarring (was this an ode to the current popularity of Steampunk?), but given that the other facets of the book are so strong, this anachronism is easy to overlook.

But these are minor, nitpicks in what is otherwise a flawless book. The Bards of Bone Plain is another beautifully told story from a master of her craft – absolutely recommended.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the official excerpt:

Declan smiled. “I offered to come. I wanted to hear what strange music has grown along the edge of the world.”

They studied him curiously, all suspicion gone. “Another wanderer,” one decided. “Like Nairn.”


They gestured toward the young harper. “He can play anything; he’s been everywhere around the Marches. He’s heard it all.”

The golden eyes, glinting like coins, studied Nairn. Nairn, meeting the unblinking, dispassionate gaze, felt oddly as though his world had shifted sideways, overlapped itself to give him an unexpected vision of something he didn’t know existed. The feeling echoed oddly in his memories. Astonished, he recognized it: the other time he had wanted something with all his bones and didn’t know what it was.

Declan smiled. Wordless, Nairn tipped his harp in greeting. The older bard came over to him, sat on the bench beside him.

“Play,” Declan urged. “Some song from the sea.”

Nairn shook his head slightly, found his voice. “You first. They’re all tired of listening to me by now, and so am I. Play us something from your world.”

The men rumbled their agreement. Declan inclined his head and opened his harp case.

The harp came out dancing with light. Uncut jewels inset deeply into the face of the harp glowed like mermaid’s tears, green, blue, red, amber in the firelight. The men shifted, murmuring with wonder, then were dead still as the harper played a slow, rich, elegant ballad the like of which Nairn had never heard. It left a sudden, piercing ache in his heart, that there might be a vast sea-kingdom of music he did not know and might never hear. The wanderer who had enchanted the pigs with his voice and had calloused his feet hard as door slats had glimpsed the castle in the distance, with its proud towers and the bright pennants flying over them. Such lovely, complex music was no doubt common as air within those walls. And there he stood on the outside, with no right to enter and no idea how to charm his way in. With a bladder-pipe?

The ballad ended. The men sat silently, staring at the harper.

“Sad,” one breathed finally, of the princess who had fled her life on her own bare feet to meet her true love in secret, only to find him dead in their trysting bower with her husband’s wedding ring lying in the hollow of his throat.

Another spoke, after another silence. “Reminds me of a ballad my wife sings. Only it’s a sea-maid, not a princess, and her husband is sea-born as well, but her own true love is a mortal man, drowned by a wave and found in the sand with a black pearl on his throat.”

Nairn saw a familiar kindling in Declan’s eye. “Please,” the bard said. “Sing it for me.”

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Additional Thoughts: I need to read MORE Patricia McKillip. I have The Changeling Sea under my belt – but what others should I start with? Any recommendations? I’m all ears!

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

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  • Veronica
    December 29, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I LOVE McKillip. She’s one of my all time favorites. This book was quite good, but it doesn’t go into the ‘favorites’ category. My absolute favorite is Od Magic, so that would be my first recommendation! Solstice Wood is also enjoyable, but very different from her other novels. It’s a little more mainstream than her otherworldly, poetic fantasies (which I prefer from her).

  • Kimberly Rixon
    December 29, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    I would highly recommend her Riddle Master trilogy.

  • Karalynn Lee
    December 29, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    McKillip is hands-down my favorite writing stylist.

    I think The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is hauntingly beautiful — it’s about a woman who can summon the most legendary creatures. And I adore the imagery in The Cygnet and the Firebird, although that one may be starker in tone and less epic than you’re looking for. (For epic, the aforementioned Riddle-master trilogy may be a little slow at first, but unfolds into something wondrous.)

    Her non-fantasy YA Night Gift is a surprisingly delicate look at suicide, failure in school, and teenage friendships and family.

  • Kerry
    December 29, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    I haven’t read the review – just skipped to your rating – because the book is waiting for me to read it as soon as I have more than a day or two for reading.

    I love McKillip and her style.

    I agree about the Riddle-Master trilogy. And just to be different, I loved Song for the Basilisk and didn’t finish Od Magic (although I am going to give it another go). I also really liked Alphabet of Thorn.

    What the heck, read them all! 😀

  • Kerry
    December 29, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Oh, and the one before this one, The Bell at Sealey Head. Among other things, it’s about story-telling and interpretation and it was another favourite. And sadly, one I didn’t buy in hardcover. I think I’ll regret that for a long time.

  • RK Charron
    December 29, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    Hi 🙂
    Thank you for another wonderful review.
    I love Patricia’s writing too.
    Like the above commentors, I also recommend her Riddle-Master trilogy. I’ve read it numerous times.
    Happy Hew Year!

  • Jennifer @ An Abundance of Books
    December 30, 2010 at 12:44 am

    I absolutely LOVED her book ALPHABET OF THORN. I think I’ll grab this one as quickly as I can! 🙂

  • ElizabethN
    December 30, 2010 at 12:44 am

    I started reading McKillip with the Forgotten Beasts of Eld and the Riddle-Master of Hed series and haven’t missed a book since.

    Changeling Sea is one of my favorites as is Moon-Flash and the sequel The Moon and the Face.

    Another favorite but a lot darker in tone is the Sorceress and the Cygnet and the Cygnet and the Firebird.

    Fool’s Run and the Moon series are the only books that comes to mind that are science fiction.

    Regardless of how many times I read her books, I always find some description or action that I missed on previous readings.

  • Estara
    December 30, 2010 at 5:54 am

    On the strenght of this impression I’ll be getting this book, but also because it sounds like a re-imagining of my favourite McKillip trilogy – which you might really love because it has the space to develop all the major characters fully and quite a few sidecharacters to – the ultimate McKillip books to my mind: Riddlemaster of Hed.

    We have the music, we have the mystery of ancient creatures suddenly reappearing in the world, we have the fascinating history and the strong men and women – yay! I look forward to seeing how differently she told the story this time.

  • Arhcadia
    December 30, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Very exciting to hear there’s another McKillip to read. She’s fabulous. If you can find it, i’d read Something Rich and Strange. Beautiful and lyrical. As i recall, there was originally supposed to be a set of books based on Brian Froud faerie art – this book, charles de lint’s Wild Wood, and midori snyder’s Hannah’s Garden (all 3 fab books). For some reason the set idea fell apart and they were published separately ( though original editions did have the Froud art.). Sorry, long winded recommendation!

  • Rebecca
    December 30, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    McKillip’s prose is amazing, and her descriptions of music…I’m in awe.

    I second the recommendation of “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.” Wonderful, wonderful YA.

    Also loved “Od Magic,” “Ombria in Shadow,” and “In the Forests of Serre.”

    Another McKillip book that IIRC has really beautiful descriptions of music is “Song for the Basilisk” (I think that was the title).

    But I would recommend them all. She’s favorite author.

  • Mieneke
    December 31, 2010 at 6:42 am

    This sounds great 🙂 I also loved Ombria in Shadow and The Winter Rose.

  • Kate @ Candlemark
    January 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Oh, this sounds INCREDIBLE. Given that I’m a musician and an archaeologist, in addition to a fantasy-lover, I think this has to get bumped to the top of my TBR pile…!

  • Nathan
    October 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    I’ll echo Riddlemaster of Hed and suggest The Book of Atrix Wolfe. This book (Bards) didn’t seem as deep or developed as most of her others that I’ve read; it’s nice, but light.

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