The Bards of Bone Plain by established author Patricia A. McKillip is a Celtic-inspired standalone novel. Phelan is an apathetic graduate student at a school for bards; forced into the profession by his unmusical father, Phelan just wants to find an easy topic for his final thesis and finish school forever. But when a foreign bard arrives in court with wild music that entrances everyone around him, Phelan becomes unwittingly involved in a dangerous and legendary plot hundreds of years old. Meanwhile, Phelan’s fellow student and former lover Zoe and the archaeologist-cum-princess Beatrice encounter dark mysteries of their own.
Fresh take on some old tropes
Celtic fantasies have been done to death, but McKillip refreshes the trope with a compelling world of modern technology touched by medieval details. Bards use trams for public transit; the princess studies archaeology and drives a sweet car. The school for bards was very modern, featuring seminars, teaching assistants, exams and theses, but occasionally a scene hearkens back to ancient times, like when Phelan’s students spent a class sitting in a circle under an oak tree, reciting lines of an enormous ballad from memory. The world and characters are deeply engrossing; I read the whole book in about twenty-four hours.
The magic system is also worth a quick note. Like many other fantasies, the system is based on language, but McKillip’s combination of music, historical ambiguity and scholarship offers the possibility of reading Bards as more than just a good yarn; it’s also an exploration of the real-world force of language. That, of course, has also been done before in many fantasies, but normally those other fantasies focus on the power of imaginative storytelling. Bards extends its look to the power of historical record, too. It’s easy to imagine how alternative and fantastic visions might affect the world, but a little more complex to think on how non-fiction, descriptive records of supposedly historical fact, can affect us just as much.
Interesting side-by-side stories and characters
Bards is unconventional in its alternating storylines. McKillip goes from following Nairn, young student-bard of ancient legend to following Phelan and Beatrice in the present. I never found these switches jarring; the stories switch consistently by chapter and also feature markedly different writing styles (both of which are beautiful to read). Nairn’s story also has the added interest of being preceded by excerpts from a historical treatise about Nairn’s life, written during Phelan’s time. Midway through Bards the two stories elegantly converge, and even if you guess the twist in advance — like I did — the characters and the beautiful writing will drag you on happily to the end regardless.
Speaking of characters, a brief note on the women: McKillip’s savvy, mature and independent Beatrice and Zoe are completely wonderful and believable. It was great to encounter complex female characters in a book that easily could have descended into more obvious gender roles based on its medieval influences.
Lack of suspense
The book’s biggest flaw is its lack of suspense — and I am not entirely sure that it is a flaw, because it’s possible the book was intentionally written this way. Bards unfolds like a dream, and while that’s pleasant, the dreaminess forbids any sense of urgency. Although there are negative consequences should the protagonists fail, the protagonists never seem to be truly fearful or even all that concerned. And I wasn’t all that concerned, either. The consequences just aren’t negative enough — or maybe they’re just not depicted as negative enough. I think this is primarily the result of McKillip’s trademark dreamy, musical writing style; combined with a dreamy, musical storyline, the language always insists that the reader recognize the book’s essential story-ness, that the consequences aren’t real, and that nobody will actually get hurt.
Why should you read this book?
The writing is lovely and the world, with its carefree combination of medieval and modern, is a lot of fun. Phelan, Beatrice, Zoe and Nairn are also all well-fleshed-out characters. Though The Bards of Bone Plain isn’t a serious page-turner, it is still an enjoyable read that will transport you very quickly from mundane reality to a magical, secretive realm.