I spend a lot of time reading and reviewing books that I think are on the edge of genres or across genres, because those places are intuitively where the leading edge generally is. I have admitted many times that I like seeing the genres being stretched and sometimes busted. But this is not to say that I don't also like writing that is firmly entrenched in genre tropes and tradition, so long as it is not just a retread of the same old worn stories. I'm delighted then to bring Patricia A. McKillip's The Bards of Bone Plain to the attention of fans of old-style fantasy. While McKillip does some interesting things with the setting of the fantastic genre, at its heart, The Bards of Bone Plain harkens back to the roots of fantasy, to the storyteller and the bard and the sense of something more than natural just outside our sight.
The narrative structure of The Bards of Bone Plain is delightfully deceiving, appearing to alternate between a fairly modern world where bards are nothing more than singers, and a world in the past where music and magic were intertwined and the more powerful the musician, the better the magician. The bridge between these two storylines is Phelan Cle, a young man about to graduate from the bardic school but for the required thesis. Like many students in that stage of their education, he is unsure what to write about, and the topics that most interest him have been worn out by earlier students. And so half of the story follows him and his friends as he decides on his topic and then works on the paper, while the other half is a mix of the paper he is writing and the actual events in the history his paper tries to recount. And as usually happens in such bifurcated storytelling, the two storylines come together in evocative and unexpected ways. This structure ends up putting the reader in the narrative space of the more modern storyline, as Phelan acts as our representative in this world until the rug is pulled out from under him and the reader.
Such playfulness makes The Bards of Bone Plain a primer for readers new to the fantastic genre, carefully setting the reader in a safe place in relation to the narrative—learning the ins and outs of the most basic tropes—before using crafty storytelling to open the readers' and characters' eyes to the beauty of the magic and music in her world. The fullness of her characters and the obvious joy in her wordsmithing also serve to display the potential in well-crafted genre writing. And McKillip is able to suffuse the story with an ethereality, a sense of wonder, that serves both to pull the reader in to the story being told and to take away the reader's breath when Things Happen. All of these things happen as McKillip tells the story of many fantasy novels—why the magic went away, again showing of its entrenchedness in the tradition.
Talking much more about the plot and characters of the novel would spoil them for readers, and this is one book that deserves to remain unspoiled so that its emotional charge in its closing chapters is not blunted. In that way, in its emotion and power, I am reminded of how I felt upon first finishing China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Despite them being nearly opposite ends of the fantastic continuum, they both have a voice that demands attention and appreciation as they tell powerful stories with precision and skill. And as with Mieville's work, the reader will close The Bards of Bone Plain convinced that the story goes on from there and desperately wanting more of it. I regret that I have not read any of McKillip's work since the mid-70s, but this novel has inspired not only hunting to find some of those other books but also re-reading and proselytizing this one.