Review: The Bards of Bone Plain

Posted: January 18, 2011 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Patricia A. McKillip, Fantasy

A bard is more than he or she first appears. Certainly the beautiful music, impressive memory, and courtly manners are part of the trade. But there is magic in music, and in words–even the everyday variety.

THE BARDS OF BONE PLAIN (Amazon) is Patricia A. McKillip’s latest creation. You may recognize her name for her award winning THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD (Amazon) or her RIDDLER-MASTER TRILOGY (Amazon), among others. Her stories are subtle, beautiful, and full of magic. But the real magic in BARDS is McKillip’s prose, which is lyric and enjoyable; even after decades of delighting her fans McKillip hasn’t lost her touch.

BARDS tells two stories: they both happen in the same country, yet occur hundreds of years apart. There’s the present day, an almost steampunk-type world where the youngest princess Beatrice practices archeology and drives around in her steam-powered car, much to the chagrin of her overbearing mother. Phelan is a brilliant musician in his final year at the bardic school; however he lacks ambition and plans a final paper that will write itself… but it turns into a mystery he is compelled to unravel. Zoe is the heir apparent to the king’s bard, with the voice of an angel and a sense of the real power of music.

Then in the past, hundred of years ago, there’s the mysterious story of the harpist Nairn, who is untrained but gifted. He’s discovered by the king’s bard and finds himself helplessly drawn into Declan’s circle of influence. Declan founds his own bardic school on the plain outside the capital city, rebuilding the tumble-down tower there, and drawing in new students, including a hesitant Nairn who only stays because one of the female students catches his eye.

When the king’s bard retires and a competition is announced to choose the successor, an interloper appears to vie for the position, hypnotizing everyone with his magnetic personality and magical voice. The stories are told in parallel: Nairn in the past and Zoe-Phelan-Beatrice in the present must stop the interloper from winning and thereby assuming the powerful position of Royal Bard.

he BARDS OF BONE PLAIN was a delightful book to read. It's tightly written and straightforward.

The characters are quirky without being gimmicky and are influenced as much by their family and environment as by their own personalities. Yet with so many present-day PoV characters there just isn’t enough time to tell more of their story, and as a result they lack depth and interest. Fortunately Nairn is more multi-dimensional and steals the show–this is his story, after all–with the antagonist Declan a close second. The interlopers Welkin and Kelda leave too many questions to be more than a mystery.

I really liked the concept that everyday words, or words from the Circle of Days, have power. These words are ancient, and mostly forgotten, but even a word like ‘bread’ or ‘laundry’ has a sense of magic. The magic is subtle and the mystery is revealed slowly throughout the plot, but it’s an important element of how music contains magic, and how it affects those who understand it. As a result the story isn’t as much about the music itself as it’s about the magic inherent in it. The other mystery to be unraveled is not only where the Bone Plain is, but also what it is, and what it has to do with Nairn’s tragic history. Academia has spent centuries hypothesising, and as Phelan writes his final paper I enjoyed watching him discover that the Bone Plain affects him more personally than he would have thought possible.

The BARDS OF BONE PLAIN was a delightful book to read. It’s tightly written and straightforward…but perhaps too much so, as the mystery unravels predictably and there’s not enough time to fully explore the characters. While it’s a good addition to her body of work, it’s not her best–but BARD is still worth reading, since even an average McKillip book is still better than most.

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: None
  • Violence: References to blood and war, but even that's mild
  • Sex: Referred to but nothing shown


  • celi.a says:

    I too liked this one, and agree whole-heartedly on the magic of McKillip's prose. BUT. I also agree that it wasn't her best. I was expecting a bit more mystery…along the lines of Od Magic or The Bell at Sealey Head or Alphabet of Thorn (coincidentally, three of my favorite McKillip titles). One writer who gets music in writing completely right? Sharon Shinn. I may have to go back and ponder how she does that. In any case, great review!

  • Martin LaBar says:

    Thanks for this review, especially the next-to-last paragraph.

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