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.
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