Above is the Kinuko Craft cover for Patricia A McKillip’s THE BARDS OF BONE PLAIN. Take a gander at it. It’s intricate, full of enchantment, done in a neo-classical style. Sylph-like ladies in translucent fabrics, butterflies exhaling from golden harps, twisty hidden images. Craft’s cover art mimics McKillip’s wordcraft. Richly embroidered filmy lacy language, full of opacity and mystery. I mostly read McKillip to revel in writing on the sentence level. The new book has all of the hallmarks of McKillip’s fiction in that regard.
The novel is set both in the past and present of the kingdom of Belden. The past sections are more medieval and center around a wandering bard and his trials and tribulations. The present sections center around a bardic school, located in the capital city. The present here has steam-powered technology, perhaps a nod to the current preoccupation of steampunk. The present plot line mostly meanders and has a “cozy” non-magical fantasy-of-manners feel of books like, say Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint while the past storyline is very Celtic-based high fantasy. The past plotline has more oomph, while the present plotline is more character-driven. Of course, the two plotlines eventually, and slowly, converge. The themes–magic hidden in language and music–are McKillip’s stalwart themes.
The beautiful writing, full of lovely images, however, does not hide the lack of narrative tension in the plot. McKillip loves her quirky characters–which include an archaelogist princess and a bored but studious bard–to put them into too much danger. As a result, the sinister elements and subsequent suspense falls flat. Still, THE BARDS OF BONE PLAIN, if kind of slight, is a wonderful introduction to McKillip’s oeuvre.