Patricia McKillip reading notes: The Bards of Bone Plain

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

bards of bone plainThe Bards of Bone Plain is one of Patricia McKillip’s most recent books, first published in 2010. It’s one that I haven’t re-read very often, perhaps because it’s so new.

Many of McKillip’s books take place in some version of a fantasyland that seems vaguely medievalish. In this instance, she broke away from that pattern a bit, as Bards takes place in a world that has thermoses, trams, and steam cars. It’s sort of a McKillip-y version of steampunk, which is to say it’s not very much like the normal idea of steampunk at all.

The narrative structure of this one reminded me quite a bit of the structure of Alphabet of Thorn. Like that book, here we have the narrations of Phelan Cle, Princess Beatrice, and Zoe. Alternating with their narratives is the story of Nairn, told through Phelan’s paper, ballads about Nairn, and finally Nairn’s own narration. I like this structure and I think McKillip uses it quite effectively here, although for me the transitions lacked some of the tension that I saw in Alphabet of Thorn.

McKillip also returns to some favorite themes in this one. First, there’s the idea of the transmutation of history into legend; as with Alphabet of Thorn we are given the legends initially and as the story unfolds we are invited into the true history. In this book especially, the theme of legend vs. history ties in to an overall question of the modern country and the way it interacts with its own past. There’s a sense here that the past lies just under the surface of the trams and cars. And many of the traditions of the past are certainly present. But at the same time, it seems that the meaning of them has been lost by the beginning of the book; that only the form is still carried out.

There’s also a lot about hidden power here, even stated fairly explicitly. It’s in the country itself, in Nairn, in the modern-day bards. Declan can see it and tries to bring it out, but the country remains fairly prosaic. And of course, since this is McKillip, everyone has hidden talents and identities. Jonah, most obviously. But Beatrice, who feels herself split into two princesses–the fluffy, dutiful one and the one she identifies with, Phelan with his unknown talent for music, Zoe and her ability to see magic between the lines. Even Declan, whose true motivation is withheld for most of the book.

McKillip returns to riddles as well, which perhaps tie in nicely with the idea of hidden meaning. While they’re not as prevalent as in the Riddle-Master books, they certainly appear here, often in connection with Nairn or the lost past of the bard’s school. Indeed, the idea of Bone Plain itself is a riddle for most of the book.

Many of McKillip’s books are set against a time of change, of transition. This is true here, although not as obviously as it sometimes is. First, in Nairn’s time the story revolves around the creation of the modern kingdom of Belden, from five kingdoms conquered by King Oroh. And then in the modern Belden, there is a transition, but it takes place within the bards, not within royalty. It’s here that the struggle for the country, and against Nairn’s ancient foe, happens.

I also noted and really liked the connection to the living, natural world. The clearest example happens early on, when Phelan visits Jonah at the dig site: “Like them, he watched the water for a ripple, a sign, direction. Water spoke, broke in a delicate froth upon the worthless clutter it had dredged up and laid like treasure upon the mud. Reeds stirred; a breeze had wakened. It would blow off the mist, the marches of that tiny, private patch of timelessness.”

So in one sense, Bards of Bone Plain turns on the idea of history, and knowing it rather than relying on legend (and yet, the legends sometimes turn out to be disconcertingly true). But in another, it’s really about forgiveness: both forgiving and being forgiven. And perhaps most especially, forgiving oneself. As Jonah says, “I thought I was rescuing my son. That wily harper fooled me again. I seem to have rescued myself instead.” For me, the ending–especially the revelation of Declan’s motives–worked really well.

And I’ll also note that I loved Beatrice! I realize that the story never really looks very hard at the fact that she has the freedom to do many of the things she chooses, but in this specific instance I’m willing to overlook that. I really enjoyed her stubbornness and strength of mind; the fact that she doesn’t despise the people who aren’t like her, but also doesn’t let them make her over into their own image.

This wasn’t one that absolutely blew me away, but it is a story I really enjoyed reading again and that I think has quite a few subtle strengths to it.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2010, Ace Books; adult fantasy


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Links from around the web 7-22-15

I really liked Liz Bourke’s post on “Conversations Founded on False Assumptions“: “Examining what we like, what we admire, and why we like it, is the work of a lifetime. But if we don’t, we end up reinforcing structural inequities as though they were the natural way of the world—and there’s nothing natural about rendering invisible people who’ve been here all along.” However, I have it on good authority that the comments are DOOM! DOOM!!

Related, somewhat: Renay wrote an amazing post on the weight of genre history and canon for Strange Horizons. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. “In SF, this pressure feels doubled because it feels like there’s a push to value stories by and about men more but also a keen pressure to be educated in the genre, the genre lines, and the fandom’s history itself. You don’t just need to read Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Herbert, Card…but you need to be able to contextualize them, too, if you want to have critical chops or be taken seriously.”

And this interview with Noelle Stevenson was really great, I thought! (via Stephanie Burgis)

On a more serious note, this article from The Guardian on the hidden history of British slavery is really important.

Artwork: I love this; also this; this is so beautiful and fairytale-esque

Queen’s Thief fanart: Lilies; the dog watch of the night


These cats are trying to jump. They’re just not doing it very well.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Diverse books

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

Today’s topic is “Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity/Diverse Characters”. I feel a bit weird giving my opinion since I don’t belong to any diverse groups. However, I’ve tried to pick books that are written by people from the groups they represent and that are well regarded by those groups. If you spot anything iffy on my list, please feel free to let me know. Also, if you’re a minority blogger and are posting a TTT list today, feel free to link and I will signal boost here & on Twitter!

ms. marvelone crazy summerthe crossoverthis side of homegreatgreene

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson: I’ve talked before about how much I love Ms. Marvel. I’m fairly new to the world of Marvel comics, and her story is so fun and rich with layers and emotions. I love how her faith and her culture inform who she is, but how Kamala is also her own person making decisions and doing the best she can. (Also her sense of humor is amazing.)

One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia: I’ve been a fan of the Gaither sisters ever since I first read One Crazy Summer. Delphine is probably my favorite, because I’m also an oldest child and get the worry of trying to take care of younger siblings. But I especially love all three of them together, and the music they make when their voices ring out.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander: I was lucky enough to be in the room when the Newbery Award was announced this year, and I think I screamed, I was so happy. I often feel that books in verse for kids are lacking in either the verse or the story, but in this case Josh’s voice and Alexander’s poetry and the beautiful story all combine to make something amazing.

This Side of Home by Renee Watson: This is a wonderful story about growing up and finding out who you are in relationship to family and friends. It’s also about gentrification and the effects that can have on the community that is being changed. Watson writes an incredibly thoughtful, nuanced book, but it’s Maya that really stands out.

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson: I absolutely loved this middle-grade heist story, which took some of the key plot points of the great heist stories and translated them to middle school. It’s a fast-paced, fun story, and the group that Jackson assembles is diverse in more ways that one. Bonus: there’s a sequel coming out soon! (YAY.)

love is the druggrand plan to fix everythingagencyakata witchgabi

Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson: In a world that’s almost ours, Bird is a student at an elite Washington DC school. She’s not entirely happy with where her life is going, but it’s good enough. Then everything turns horrible as a virus shows up in DC and the city is shut down. I found Johnson’s second book to be very powerful, both in the ideas its examining, and the way the subtle way the characters are portrayed. It’s a what-if book that also takes into account the realities of our world.

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami: Dini! Dini is amazing and wonderful. If you ever need a book where happy endings and lovely coincidences are assured, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and its sequel, The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic are great. They’re truly some of the most entirely enjoyable books I’ve ever read.

The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee: Part-Chinese girl detective in Victorian London. That should be all I need to tell you, but in fact I’ll go on: Mary is a stubborn, complex character, the mysteries are engaging, the romance is swoony, and the covers are AMAZING. (Seriously, Candlewick put so much work into getting the details right; I am very impressed.) The last book in the series was just published, so now is the perfect time to read them all.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor: So in a lot of ways this is a classic coming of age story, where a young girl finds out that she has magical talents and learns to use them. Sunny was born in America, but she lives in Nigeria, and that influences the everyday details of the book, as well as her magic and how she learns to use it. This is a lovely story, with beautiful descriptions of the magic Sunny encounters.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero: Gabi’s diary, written throughout her senior year, gives the reader a window into her life as she processes all the different changes she and her friends are facing. I loved the way this one gave us this unfiltered view into a teenage girl–I really identified with having a diary as the one place I could really say what I was thinking. And Gabi’s navigation of the different cultures and expectations she finds herself in was especially strong, in my opinion.


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Women at war: Noah’s Ark and The Bletchley Girls

Once again, I’ve managed to accidentally read two books in a row that contrast nicely with each other. Both of these books deal in some way with women during WWII. The first is Marie-Madeleine Fourcade’s memoir of her activities as one of the leaders of the Alliance circuit of the French Resistance. The second is Tessa Dunlop’s look at different women’s activities and experiences while working at or around Bletchley Park.

Fourcade’s memoir is intensely personal, and filtered through her own opinions and reminiscences about the Resistance and the people who made it up. The English version, called Noah’s Ark, is a translation and abridgement of the French original, which made me wish I read French well enough to try that. (I don’t at all.) I was interested in the various figures that Fourcade shows us, although I almost wished that I had read an overall history of the Resistance first. I felt I was missing various contexts and that we were really getting her opinion about people and events.

While Fourcade doesn’t focus a great deal of attention on this, she does talk a bit about the fact that as a fairly young woman (I believe in her mid thirties) she stepped into running a massive organization, in the middle of a war. She had to learn to command the respect of those who were more directly risking their lives. And it carried a great cost for her personally, as she ended up apart from her family and unsure of whether she would ever see them again.

For me, perhaps the most emotional part of the book came when she described the fate of Leon Faye, one of the main agents for the Alliance circuit, who attempted to escape from the Gestapo headquarters in Paris with Noor Inayat Khan. I had heard this story before, but had been pretty much entirely focused on Noor’s part in it. So it was quite unexpected to find her suddenly here.

At any rate, this was a fascinating, heartbreaking, informative book, but it was most certainly a memoir, recounting a particular person’s viewpoint and opinions. I would like to find a good history of the Resistance to compare it with.

The Bletchley GirlsTessa Dunlop’s The Bletchley Girls is a little different in scope and approach. She made a point of finding and interviewing the Bletchley girls who are still alive (or were at the time of the writing) rather than relying on published histories. She weaves together the reminiscences of fourteen of the young women who worked at Bletchley Park. The overall effect gives the overview of women’s roles at BP a personal touch.

I suppose that, like most people, I have a fairly glamorous–or at least, vaguely exciting–image of Bletchley Park. And perhaps if one of the women who worked most closely with Dilly Knox or Turing were alive to give her testimony, that would be more present. But the accounts Dunlop collects show that for many of these young women, the strict secrecy and compartmentalization of the Park gave their work a monotonous flavor. Most of them didn’t really know until after the war how vital their particular work was.

While in a certain way this is slightly disappointing, it also helps dispel some of the mythos that surrounds Bletchley Park. Some of them loved it, and others were bored in the moment but appreciated the overall work. Some simply hated it. But interestingly, for many of them their work at BP changed the course of their lives. Not necessarily in dramatic ways, but by giving them opportunities, by introducing women who became life-long friends.

Because both of these books are primarily centered around personal accounts and memories, neither is entirely focused on the overall role of women in the war (Dunlop is more so). However, they both of course provide a picture of some of the many reasons women did enter the war, and how they made their way.

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Patricia McKillip reading notes: Harpist in the Wind

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

hitw1Harpist in the Wind is the third and final book of the Riddle-Master trilogy and also in some ways the weirdest. We switch point of view characters back to Morgon from Raederle (sigh), but we do get quite a bit of Raederle because she’s determined to come with Morgon wherever he goes. As she says early in the book, “I am doing no more waiting.” (I can’t help reading this as a response to Arwen, and while I do think Arwen tends to get a bad rap, I also get it.)

I’ve talked a little bit about how I see Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books as the precursors to this one. But I also see the trilogy, and perhaps especially this book, as precursors to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Ana talked in her review about the combination of personal and epic, and that “Saving the world matters, and so does saving the people you love, and Agnieszka is given room to care about both.” I think that applies to a certain extent here, and I was interested to see how much Morgon clings to his love of Hed and his family, even as they’re stripped away from him.

But then, in the end, they’re given back. Not entirely, and not in the same way, but it’s clear that as Morgon is given land-rule over the whole realm, he is given Hed back. You cannot go home, but he does. I find this especially interesting in light of the fact that McKillip is writing about the end of an age–she says so over and over, and yet at the end of the book, there is grief and loss but nothing has actually changed. The Elves have not set sail into the West.hitw3

Except, in a way they have. The Earth-Masters, revealed to be the shape-changers, have gone. Morgon binds them until their death or his. Deth is gone, leaving behind a legacy for Morgon which he now must take up. But I never felt the sea change, the diminishing of the world which Tolkien wrote so well (“Land of the Valley of Singing Gold, that was it, once upon a time. Now it is the Dreamflower”). All the human systems remain intact, with Morgon to step into the High One’s place and Eliard to step into his.

Quite a bit of the book is centered on the emotional landscape between Raederle and Morgon as they journey around the world of the book. Morgon keeps trying to get Raederle to stay behind and Raederle refuses. They fight, over large and small things, and in the end they find each other again. I found that by the end of the story I did believe in their relationship and that they would find their way.

If throughout the first two books, hidden natures and hidden names were a big theme, then here what was hidden is revealed. At least, by the end; Deth spends a significant portion of the book disguised as the wizard Yrth. Or rather the High One has put off his Deth-guise and put on his Yrth-guise? This book is weird, and I feel like not everything is ever truly explained. In a certain sense, I didn’t need it to be: the emotional journey of Morgon and Raederle rang true and I accept the whole thing in some way that I can’t quite articulate.

hitw2However, I will admit that I have a hard time with Deth/Yrth/the High One’s actions in forcing Morgon through the experiences of the book. It’s true that parts of it were out of his control, and that he couldn’t reveal himself too soon, and yet. I love what McKillip was writing towards: that moment when everything is explained, when sorrows are transmuted, when you can find the deep secrets in your own nature without losing who you are. But as much as I love that, as much as I love the ultimate choices Morgon makes, I don’t think she quite pulls it off.

Despite this, just as I remembered loving the opening of Riddle-Master, I remembered loving the ending of Harpist. And I do, I truly do. There’s a sense of homecoming, of things ending and things beginning. And the last line is one of my favorites: “Peace, tremulous, unexpected, sent a taproot out of nowhere into Morgon’s heart.”

Book source: public library

Book information: 1979, Atheneum; adult fantasy


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Patricia McKillip reading notes: Heir of Sea and Fire

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

hosaf1As discussed yesterday, the Riddle-Master trilogy–or Riddle of Stars–is Patricia McKillip’s entry into the epic fantasy subgenre. When I first read it in 2008, I noted that it felt like “a bit like a grown up version of the Prydain Chronicles” and I stand by that, although I suspect she was writing in response to Tolkien as well.

While I felt somewhat frustrated with The Riddle-Master of Hed, I found that I really enjoyed Heir of Sea and Fire. This is mostly due to one thing: we switch main characters, from Morgon to Raederle. And I love Raederle! She’s impulsive and stubborn and loyal, and when it comes down to it she knows her own heart.

This book begins, in a nice echo of the opening of Riddle-Master, with the arrival of ships and a family argument. As with Morgon, Eliard, and Tristan, I really liked the complex warmth, humor, and tensions of Mathom’s family. The tensions are largely because Mathom never tells anyone anything if he can help it, and then he leaves An to go to Erlenstar mountain after word comes that Morgon is dead and the land-rule has passed to Eliard.

But Raederle doesn’t wait to find out what has happened. She convinces her father’s ship-master and Lyra of Herun to go to Erlenstar Mountain with her. And they are joined by Tristan, Morgon’s sister. None of them are entirely convinced that Morgon is dead, and even if he is, they want to find out why. Deth, the High One’s harpist and emissary, has disappeared as well, and they want answers.hosaf2

So, as I was reading this one, I wrote down: “Hmmm, so I like this one and it’s all the women. Hmmm.” I like what I like, I guess, and although their quest is defined by Morgon, I find all of the women McKillip writes in this book to be complex & interesting–and perhaps most of all, allowed to sometimes make mistakes without being judged it for it. I’m curious–if anyone knows the history of epic fantasy better than I do, are there any earlier examples of women as major pov characters? And especially any groups of women doing questy things? This is the earliest I could find.

hosaf4At any rate, a lot of this book revolves around Raederle’s struggle with her heritage. One of her ancestors was a shape-changer, the same deadly enemy that the realm is now fighting against. And her own power and desires come in part from this shape-changer, Ylon, who had an unhappy life and a sad destiny. How can Raederle accept her power and her heritage without becoming the thing that she hates and fears, that Morgon hates and fears?

One of the things that McKillip does nicely, I think, is show how it’s not just Morgon whose life is changed forever. Nearly everyone ends up involved in the story, in one way or another. Raederle is one who clearly falls into this category, whose journey into power and into herself echoes Morgon’s to a certain extent. But she also is herself, and she is more willing to use what she has than Morgon, who wishes so much to stand aside from what he holds.

There’s a theme of trust running through these books: Deth asks Morgon to trust him “beyond logic, beyond reason, beyond hope” just before betraying him. Raederle must learn to trust herself, to open herself to the heritage she does not want to accept as well as the one she does. But Deth’s betrayal also has echoes: Raederle says to Deth at one point, “Did you think you were betraying only Morgon?” and it’s clear that for her, the personal hurt is nearly as great as that she feels on Morgon’s behalf. hosaf3

And there’s quite a bit about legends as well: the High One, the legends of Lungold and the wizards; even the riddles which may be simply parables but which may have also happened. As Deth says, “Legends have a grim way of twisting into truth,” and part of this book is about discovering which is which.

So yes–in many ways, Heir of Sea and Fire is my favorite book of the trilogy. I find Raederle and her reactions to her heritage, the relationship she has with Lyra and Tristan, and her determination to find out the truth to be engaging and compelling. Perhaps most of all, she acts where Morgon tends to react (at least in the first book) and I found this to be much nicer to read about.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1977, Atheneum; adult fantasy


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Patricia McKillip reading notes: Riddle-Master of Hed

Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

rmh3The Riddle-Master of Hed is the first volume in a trilogy commonly known as the Riddle-Master books or Riddle of Stars. It was first published in 1976, as the epic fantasy genre was exploding and beginning to define itself. (Lord of the Rings had become popular in the late 1960s, The Chronicles of Prydain were published from 1964-1968, and The Sword of Shannara would be published in 1977.) The Riddle-Master of Hed is certainly McKillip’s entry in the subgenre, and her response to it. I suspect that she was writing largely in response to Tolkien, though I see some similarities to Alexander’s Prydain books as well.

In terms of my personal reading history, I read the trilogy for the first time in 2008, and have re-read it several times since then. I have fond associations with it, but hadn’t re-read any of the books in at least four years.

I love the opening of this book, in memory and in fact. McKillip’s word picture of Hed, of Morgon, Eliard, and Tristan, and of their comfortable, familial world is so vivid and enchanting that although events quickly move us away from it, its function as Morgon’s anchor throughout the story works very well for me. It gives a sense of family and community that is warm, even though it’s full of bickering and disagreements.

It’s worth noting that, as with Alphabet of Thorn, Riddle-Master is set against a time of change. Of course in terms of the wider scope of the world, this is true. But it’s also the case for Hed and for Morgon’s family: their parents have died recently and their father’s land-rule passed to Morgon. This loss, which happens before the book begins, actually drives much of rest of the story, as does Morgon’s riddle-match with Peven and the fact that he won Peven’s crown from him. These two off-stage actions echo through the story, but it only begins when Deth, the High One’s harpist, comes to Hed and meets Morgon for the first time.

rmh2The land-rule is one of the more interesting aspects of McKillip’s world in the Riddle-Master books. She is often concerned with the passage of inheritance and power from one ruler to another, but the idea of the land-rule, the sense of the land itself and responsibility for it is neat. I think other writers have since played with the idea although just at this moment I’m unable to come up with any specific examples.

At any rate, when Deth comes, the plot swings into motion. Morgon is going to An, so he can see Raederle, whose hand he accidentally won when he won Peven’s crown. But he was born with three stars on his forehead and with that comes destiny. So far, so standard; Morgon’s promise to Eliard that he’ll come back to Hed is touching, but as the story gets going, it seems familiar. They’re going on a quest! Things will happen! Swords will be drawn!

And then Morgon refuses to take up the quest. For almost half the book, he insists that he’s going home to Hed, that he has a choice that has nothing to do with the stars on his face, nothing to do with his parents’ deaths, nothing to do with Peven’s crown. Since there are two more books, this seems unlikely. And yet, it takes ages for Morgon to act rather than react.

My reaction to this is fairly mixed. I can’t decide whether it’s excellent writing–it is, after all, closer to the way most people make big decisions than many epics show–or whether it should have been edited down because GOOD GRIEF. The whole story seems rather opaque; there’s a point to it, but the reactions of the characters seem contradictory and frustrating, and the themes take awhile to develop. There’s an odd shapelessness to the threat, as well.

rmh1When the themes do develop, they’re quite interesting. Like Tolkien, McKillip is intentionally and explicitly writing about the end of an age. But who or what is ending remains unclear. Her concern with names and true natures being hidden is already apparent. Some of the characters are deliberate hiding who they are, others don’t even know themselves. I also found it nice that while Morgon is clearly the Chosen One, he needs others and relies on their help and friendship, as well as his sense of Hed and his family.

But the most major theme of this book is the weight of destiny, this thing that Morgon has in no way chosen but which will shape his life. He says it perhaps most clearly to Lyra in Herun: “Because it’s not death I’m afraid of–it’s losing everything I love for a name and a sword and a destiny I did not choose and will not accept.” The real tension of the book lies in his refusal to accept and the reader’s knowledge that he will in some way be forced to.

As I was reading this time, I found myself frustrated by this volume, by Morgon and his stubbornness. Having finished the trilogy and considering it again, I find myself still frustrated, but this time by the fact that this is the set up for the payoff which comes two books later. The reasons for the Tour of The Kingdoms make so much more sense in the context of Morgon’s eventual fate. But on its own, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I expected to, mostly because of the apparent aimlessness of the story and Morgon’s stubborn passiveness.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1976, Atheneum; adult fantasy


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