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The Bards of Bone Plain [NOOK Book]


The latest "rich, resonant" (Publishers Weekly) fantasy from the World Fantasy Award-winning author of The Bell at Sealey Head.

Eager to graduate from the school on the hill, Phelan Cle chose Bone Plain for his final paper because he thought it would be an easy topic. Immortalized by poets and debated by scholars, it was commonly accepted-even at a school steeped in bardic tradition-that Bone Plain, with its three trials, three terrors, and ...
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The Bards of Bone Plain

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The latest "rich, resonant" (Publishers Weekly) fantasy from the World Fantasy Award-winning author of The Bell at Sealey Head.

Eager to graduate from the school on the hill, Phelan Cle chose Bone Plain for his final paper because he thought it would be an easy topic. Immortalized by poets and debated by scholars, it was commonly accepted-even at a school steeped in bardic tradition-that Bone Plain, with its three trials, three terrors, and three treasures, was nothing more than a legend, a metaphor. But as his research leads him to the life of Nairn, the Wandering Bard, the Unforgiven, Phelan starts to wonder if there are any easy answers...

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
World Fantasy Award–winner McKillip (The Bell at Sealey Head) offers a rich, resonant story of poetry, riddles, mystery, and magic. Phelan Cle never wanted to be a bard--that's his decidedly unmusical father's ambition for him--but now that he's about to graduate from Bardic School at Caerau, he's determined to make it easy on himself. He chooses what should be a straight-forward thesis topic: Bone Plain, where legend says all poetry originated, where Nairn the Wanderer, the Fool, the Cursed, the Unforgiven, one of the greatest bards in history, failed the mysterious Three Trials and disappeared forever. History surrounds the school and the nearby standing stones, where archaeologist Princess Beatrice digs up an unusual artifact that may hold the key to the mysteries of Bone Plain. McKillip seduces readers with lyrical prose; intriguing, complex characters; and resonant riddles-within-riddles. (Dec.)
Library Journal
Phelan Cle, needing to write one more paper to graduate from the bardic school on the hill, decides to focus on the enigmatic tale of Bone Plain and the life of Nairn, the legendary Wandering Bard. At the same time, Phelan's alcoholic father, Jonah, spurred on by the king's youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, conducts archaeological forays throughout the city, seeking bits of lost history and something that just escapes his grasp. McKillip's (The Bell at Sealey Head) finely tuned feel for the mythic aspects of stories informs her fantasies with the underpinnings of archetypal power, yet her characters remain endearingly human, with recognizable flaws and strengths. VERDICT This masterfully told tale by an author sensitive to nuance and detail will please McKillip's many fans.
The Barnes & Noble Review

From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

Before I take you gallivanting off to visit a trio of marvelously imagined otherworlds, let's drop in on a packed conference hall in Hamburg, Germany, in the 21st century. At a conference of writers, scholars, and lovers of the fantastic in the arts earlier this fall*, my colleague the novelist and critic Brian Stableford offered the term "heterocosmic creativity," as a big tent that might contain the wide-ranging topics that were on tap that day: Utopias, vampires, and alternate histories; Star Trek, Percy Jackson, Lord of the Rings; Paul Auster, Max Ernst, Lady Murasaki.

Where once this set of literary interests might have been the province of only a dedicated sub-group, connoisseurs of the unreal, it seems undeniable that the fantastic flourishes today as never before. The bestseller lists and the box-office receipts testify to the dominance and popularity of heterocosmic creativity in all its guises, the more fantastical the better. In fact, that type of heterocosmic literature known as science fiction, whose signature trick was always to blend naturalism with the speculatively outré, has declined in popularity over the years in the face of pure fantasy, which frequently turns its back completely on science, rationality, logic, and plausibility.

But despite the current outpouring of heterocosmic creativity -- or maybe because of it! -- fantastic literature, like any human endeavor, finds itself still manifesting Sturgeon's Law, which famously mandates that "Ninety percent of everything is crud." In a disposable welter of sexy werewolves, enigmatic elves, and juvenile wizards, the truly original and finely crafted work often gets lost.

Here, then, are three recent novels, embedded firmly in the mainstream of commercial fantasy, that nonetheless stand out above the flood.

Galen Beckett, author of the beguiling and charming The House on Durrow Street and its predecessor, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, is in reality a writer named Mark Anthony, with six prior books to his legal name. I must confess that my glancing encounters with his early work left me uninspired, as they seemed generic high fantasy. So the name change and relaunch -- often a strategy to deal with disappointing sales and unfair audience perceptions -- was probably a necessary and good thing, catching readers like myself with our prejudices down. But of course, the tactic would have been worthless without a substantial novel or three behind it, and those goods Beckett provides in spades.

The two books so far in this series (with a third, The Master of Heathcrest Hall, due to round out the sequence), fall squarely under the category of "fantasies of manners." This mode, emphasizing the loaded, coded behavior of exotic societies in the manner of a Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer novel, received its biggest boost a few years ago from Susanna Clarke's bestselling novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, although talented practitioners such as Caroline Stevermer had flourished earlier.

Beckett's winning conceit is that the demure politeness and witty banter and rigid matrix of social conventions prevalent in his pre-technological land of Altania really conceal a subterranean power struggle that is positively Lovecraftian. Beyond the frayed curtain of mundane existence, a race of hideous elder beings known as the Ashen are striving to return to the human world, aided by their mortal pawns. The only barrier to their triumph and the destruction of mankind are witches such as our heroine, Lady Ivy Quent, her bold and stalwart husband Alasdare, and good magicians such as Lord Rafferdy. But can Ivy Quent focus entirely on cosmic matters? Hardly, what with two younger sisters to marry off, a father in a madhouse, and a decrepit old domicile to rehab.

Success in such a mode of fantasy relies on walking a tightrope perfectly. On the one hand, the social interplay must ring true, and captivate the reader. On the other hand, the weird elements must exert their own attraction and potency. Too much cozy can spoil the grotesque, and vice versa. But Beckett maintains a perfect balance. The strivings and snubs and conquests of the parlor and tavern and palace -- love affairs, dinner parties, debts, games of status -- never overshadow the otherworldly perils -- the enigmatic figures in black, the looming new red star in the heavens, the titular house with its carved living eyes. Nor does the occult huggermugger detract from the quotidian. They supplement each other nicely: terror hidden beneath crinoline skirts.

Patricia McKillip is approaching the fortieth anniversary of her first novel, and she just keeps getting better and better. Little prone to repeating herself, she nevertheless has fashioned a body of work that exhibits an overarching consistency and uniformity of tone and approach. Her novels have the force of primal fairy tales akin to those collected by Grimm or Andersen, with a modern sensibility that never becomes intrusive. She exhibits the same delicacy and deftness and connectedness to the Ur-storytellers as did Lord Dunsany. To borrow Dunsany's famous phrase, she is joyfully at play "beyond the fields we know."

Curiously enough, as if casting a ruminative look backward at her own long career, McKillip's latest -- The Bards of Bone Plain -- deals explicitly with the storytelling urge, finding much to say about why and how we tell tales, and where they fit into any healthy culture. Yet there is no smidgen of preachiness or boasting at work in her lovely narrative.

Phelan Cle, about to graduate from his studies as a Master Bard, is unfortunately saddled with a drunken father, who is a starry-eyed antiquarian, and also with a bit of uncertainty about his career and future. Phelan finds all his problems assuming starker magnitude with the arrival of a mysterious foreign bard named Kelda, who seems determined to upset the calmness and hierarchy at Phelan's school.

But this tale is not Phelan's alone, as McKillip populates her canvas with a host of engaging characters, with my favorite being Princess Beatrice, who, sharing the love of antiquity exhibited by Cle senior, has "spent her life in holes," being most at home after "fleeing out the nearest door of the castle after she had pulled on her dungarees and boots." If I tell you that Beatrice's mother is named, perfectly, "Queen Harriet," you will see the kind of expert characterization and off-kilter humor that McKillip delights in.

Every other chapter in the novel takes place in the deep past of Phelan's world, following the career of the seminal Bard named Nairn whose biographical details have been darkened for Phelan and his contemporaries by the passage of centuries. Eventually, in a surprising and clever move, the tail of the past is bitten by the jaws of the future, making a beautiful circle of events, thematically and plotwise.

McKillip knows and shows the rigors and challenges, traps and rewards of the creative life. By establishing a dialogue between the "purer" past of her world and its oh-so-slightly overcivilized present, McKillip speaks to our own era's ultra-commodification of storytelling, and, in one of the signature moves of good fantasy, highlights a path toward reinvigoration of that which has grown stale.

A tomboy princess, the tension between a storied past and a troubled present, and the angst that accompanies finding one's place in the world also crop up in Robin McKinley's new book, Pegasus, but in a fashion decidedly different from the same set of tropes in The Bards of Bone Plain. Whereas McKillip is writing sophisticated, modern-day kindermärchen, McKinley is turning out something much closer, at its core, to science fiction, the fantasy-tinged kind pioneered by Andre Norton in such classics as The Beast Master and Witch World. Despite its Neverland setting, McKinley's novel might well have been placed on a human-colonized alien planet, and in fact blends the world-building of Poul Anderson with the anthropological explorations of Michael Bishop in such works as "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," all under the capacious fantasy canopy. And of course, Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels will also come immediately to mind.

Princess Sylviianel -- Sylvi for short -- is the fourth child and only daughter of the rulers of a human kingdom whose aboriginal allies are pegasi: winged horses. But not the classic Greek icons. Here's a description of them:

Pegasi looked almost like four-legged birds, standing next to horses. Their necks were longer and their bodies shorter in comparison, their ribs tremendously widesprung for lung space and their shoulders broad for wing muscles, but tapering away behind to almost nothing; their bellies tucked up like sighthounds', although there were deep lines of muscles on their hindquarters. Their legs seemed as slender as grass stems, and the place where the head met the neck was so delicate a child's hands could ring it…

Definitely alien, a bit creepy, and almost insectile. Not your off-the-shelf wish-fulfillment cousins to unicorns. It's a tribute to McKinley's powers of depiction and characterization that she makes the reader experience Sylvi's unique bond with these exotic creatures. The girl -- twelve years old at story's start, sixteen later on -- is the first person to be able to converse via a fluid telepathy with these sentients, starting with her specially bonded partner, Ebon. (One gets the sense almost that Sylvi is a mutant, the first of her kind in eight centuries, another SF riff.) Sylvi's unprecedented connection with the pegasi leads to a paradigm shift in the culture, in which she assumes her true destiny.

McKinley is explicit that her tale is a parable of race relations. (Did I mention that Ebon is a rare black pegasus?) The magician Fthoom objects to Sylvi's powers: "'The two races are too dissimilar; any attempt to draw them together can only do injury -- the incomprehension between our two peoples is a warning we ignore at our peril.'" Unconventionally, however, McKinley portrays neither humans nor pegasi as oppressors or oppressed, but as equals in unfamiliarity and cloisteredness. No shame or guilt or anger encumbers their relationship, only ignorance and lack of outreach. It's a refreshing change from the imperialist Avatar template.

Another subtext that is acknowledged glancingly, but is just as vital, is that of Sylvi's adolescent sexual awakening -- and interracial sexual awakening at that. Substitute lovemaking terms for flying terms in the passage below, and the import is apparent.

Would it be so terrible if we were found out? If it was known that we went flying together? But she remained silent because she knew the answer: Yes, because it was forbidden. Yes because if they tried to claim that they had not been expressly forbidden to go flying together it would mean they were irresponsible children. And yes because everything about the unprecedented strangeness of their relationship was risky, because some people were frightened by strangeness.

Quite a weighty freight for what purports to be a simple YA fantasy. But illustrative of just how much real substance true heterocosmic creativity can contain, when cliché and imitation are left behind.

* The conference in question was the German Conference on the Fantastic, held in September of this year at the University of Hamburg and masterminded by Professor Lars Schmeink. It was the inaugural affair of the newly founded Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung, or GFF, and was inspired by the long-running International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101445815
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/7/2010
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 569,422
  • File size: 277 KB

Meet the Author

Patricia A. McKillip is a winner of the World Fantasy Award, and the author of numerous novels. She lives in Oregon.
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Read an Excerpt

Declan smiled. "I offered to come. I wanted to hear what strange music has grown along the edge of the world."

They studied him curiously, all suspicion gone. "Another wanderer," one decided. "Like Nairn."


They gestured toward the young harper. "He can play anything; he's been everywhere around the Marches. He's heard it all."

The golden eyes, glinting like coins, studied Nairn. Nairn, meeting the unblinking, dispassionate gaze, felt oddly as though his world had shifted sideways, overlapped itself to give him an unexpected vision of something he didn't know existed. The feeling echoed oddly in his memories. Astonished, he recognized it: the other time he had wanted something with all his bones and didn't know what it was.

Declan smiled. Wordless, Nairn tipped his harp in greeting. The older bard came over to him, sat on the bench beside him.

"Play," Declan urged. "Some song from the sea."

Nairn shook his head slightly, found his voice. "You first. They're all tired of listening to me by now, and so am I. Play us something from your world."

The men rumbled their agreement. Declan inclined his head and opened his harp case.

The harp came out dancing with light. Uncut jewels inset deeply into the face of the harp glowed like mermaid's tears, green, blue, red, amber in the firelight. The men shifted, murmuring with wonder, then were dead still as the harper played a slow, rich, elegant ballad the like of which Nairn had never heard. It left a sudden, piercing ache in his heart, that there might be a vast sea-kingdom of music he did not know and might never hear. The wanderer who had enchanted the pigs with his voice and had calloused his feet hard as door slats had glimpsed the castle in the distance, with its proud towers and the bright pennants flying over them. Such lovely, complex music was no doubt common as air within those walls. And there he stood on the outside, with no right to enter and no idea how to charm his way in. With a bladder-pipe?

The ballad ended. The men sat silently, staring at the harper.

"Sad," one breathed finally, of the princess who had fled her life on her own bare feet to meet her true love in secret, only to find him dead in their trysting bower with her husband's wedding ring lying in the hollow of his throat.

Another spoke, after another silence. "Reminds me of a ballad my wife sings. Only it's a sea-maid, not a princess, and her husband is sea-born as well, but her own true love is a mortal man, drowned by a wave and found in the sand with a black pearl on his throat."

Nairn saw a familiar kindling in Declan's eye. "Please," the bard said. "Sing it for me."

"Ah, no," the man protested, trying to shift to safety behind his friends. "I couldn't. Not for you."

"I'll sing with you," Nairn suggested promptly. "I know it."

You see? their faces told Declan as Nairn began. He knows everything.

They were all singing it toward the end, all the villagers with their voices rough as brine-soaked wool, trying to imitate the older bard's deep, tuned, resonant voice. Declan listened silently, harp on his knee, hands resting upon it. He was hardly moving. Maybe it was his breathing that kept the harp moving imperceptibly, the jewels glittering with firelight, then darkening, then gleaming again, catching at Nairn's eyes as he played. For the first time in his life he saw some use for what he only knew as words in poetry: gold, jewels, treasure. He was born poor; he took his music for free; it cost no more than air or water. But there were other songs, he realized, other music, maybe even other instruments secreted away where only those who possessed gold, wore jewels, were permitted to go.

The jewels, fair blue as sky, green as river moss, fire red, teased him, lured his eyes when he ignored them. He met Declan's eyes once, above the jewels; they told him nothing more than mist. He had stolen things in his life, but only to keep on living: eggs out of a coop, a cloak left on a bush to dry, a pair of sandals when his feet grew bigger than his shoes. Things he needed. Never anything like this. Never anything he wanted, mindlessly, with all his heart: these jewels, useless, brilliant, indolent creatures, doing no one any good, just flaunting their wealth and beauty on the face of a harp whose supple, tender voice would not change so much as a tremor if the jewels vanished.

He heard Declan's voice then, softly pitched to reach him beneath the singing.

"Take them. If you can."

He met the bard's eyes again, found them again wide, unblinking, oddly metallic, the pupils more like coins that human eyes. Like the jewels burning on his harp, they lured, teased, challenged.

Nairn dropped his eyes, pitched every note, sang every word of longing and passion in the ballad to all the music he had never heard, might never hear, the treasure-hoard of it, hidden away like forbidden love behind windowless walls, within indomitable towers.

He scarcely noticed when the ballad came to an end; he heard only the longing and loss in his heart. His fingers stilled. He heard an ember keen, a twig snap. No one spoke, except the fire, the wind, the sea. Then, as he stirred finally, he heard an odd ping against the flagstones, and then another, as though, beneath his feet, some very ancient instrument were turning itself.


He looked down, found the jewels had melted like tears down the harp face, slid to his feet.

He stared at Declan, whose eyes held a pleased, human smile. The men at the tables were beginning to shift a bone, draw a breath.

"They go where they are summoned," the bard said. "Take them. They came to you."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 17 )
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  • Posted November 17, 2011

    One of her best!

    I love this author so much I have sponsored her at my local library, trying to turn other readers on to her lyrical and imaginative writing writing. This story with its different voices and interweaving of stories is part mystery, part love story and total fantasy. I couldn't put it down, and I wanted more!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    strange but enjoyable tale

    He wants to finish his class work so he can graduate from the school on the hill. Phelan Cle chose an easy topic for his final report, the frequently studied Bone Plain. For five centuries the legendary locale has been argued about by academia as to whether it is myth fostered by romantic poets or a lost land. Even at his bardic school, Phelan knows most assume the Bone Plain is legend with its alleged trio triad of Trials, Terrors and treasures.

    Phelan's research uncovers the story of a wandering bard Nairn the Unforgiven and the student wants to know more about him. At the same time his archeologist father Jonah digs at the ancient ruins of the city. Working at the excavation sites is Princess Beatrice, who prefers digs to dances. When the team uncovers an enigmatic disk with ancient runes on it, Phelan believes this is the key to solving the riddle of Nairn the Unforgiven while Beatrice begins to notice what has been hidden in plain sight.

    This is a strange but enjoyable tale that feels like a fantasy, but is not; as Patricia McKillip provides a scholarly atmosphere in which the Lovin' Spoonful tune "Do You Believe in Magic?" seems so apropos as there is no paranormal. The story line switches effortlessly between Phelan, Beatrice and Nairn with the language of the runes connecting the trio (everything is in threes). Fans will appreciate the low-keyed look at The Bards of Bone Plain as the present interprets the past with a contemporary filter that can lead to misinterpretation

    Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 17, 2011

    Astonishingly and achingly beautiful

    Another stunning poetic triumph. A 243 page glorious word poem, a paean to the power of not only words, but also the concepts and power they unlock in our imaginations.

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  • Posted June 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Kira M for TeensReadToo

    Phelan Cle is about to graduate Bardic School just like his father wanted him to. He, however, doesn't want to be a bard. Believing he's taking the easy way out of his final paper, he chooses to do a thesis on Bone Plain, the place where all poetry begins and Nairn the Wanderer failed three trials and disappeared forever. As he dives into his research, though, the clues he finds provide a glimpse into Nairn's past and the mystery behind his disappearance. Will Phelan find a way to solve an age-old mystery? The characters are quirky, fun to read about, and leave the readers wanting to know more about them. The plot is tightly developed and holds the reader's interest. Those who like fantasy, adventure, and mysteries will enjoy reading THE BARDS OF BONE PLAIN.

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