There are a couple of authors on my "auto-buy" list. Patricia McKillip is one of them. She writes marvelous high fantasy that is so painstakingly created and populated that I equate it in my head with delicate embroidery on an enormous, exquisite tapestry.
While McKillip has written middle grade in the past, her recent books have been adult fantasy (with definite YA crossover appeal). Her latest publication is The Bards of Bone Plain, which I requested for Christmas in 2010, received, and read in early of 2011. In fact, I was quite sure I'd reviewed it here. Well, there's no time like the present!
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.
McKillip's strength is in her prose. Her intricate descriptions of places, knowledge, and human relationships with story sweep you into the tale, and from there it’s mystery, romance, history and a dash of danger. Her genius creeps up on you as you become enmeshed in the story, and her words take on lives of them own, so that you can see, hear, and understand magic.
However, even the strongest world-building must have some plot, and the story must make you love/hate/feel for its protagonists. While McKillip’s latest offering leads you on a merry chase of history, the ‘plot,’ such as it is, seems rather thin on the ground. The big reveal has been guessed at long before the last page is turned. And the characters themselves are secondary to their discoveries and music. What it comes down to is that McKillip has written other books about the magic of music, and I like them better.
One of the most interesting thematic threads in The Bards of Bone Plain is that of archaeology and history. While Phelan is searching through music, he’s also sifting through written records and historical anecdotes. At the same time, his father is engaged in digging up bits of history, and has taken on Princess Beatrice as his assistant. These practical, physical actions balance the music and folklore fairly well. If you’re a history nerd, this might be the book for you.
Recommended for: Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley and Sharon Shinn devotees, those who revel in high fantasy, and anyone who has had the thought that music and magic must be one and the same.