Upon reading Patricia A. McKillip's latest, The Bards of Bone Plain, one is struck by its symmetry. The tale is a neatly crafted puzzle—two narratives: one past, one present. As each narrative is told in alternating turn, it soon becomes clear that both the Big Question and the Big Answer are being unveiled simultaneously, if only the reader can make sense of it all.
In the present, the action centers primarily on Phelan Cle. A graduate student and exasperated son, Phelan strives to understand his distant and drunken father, Jonah, while searching for that Holy Grail of grad students everywhere, a thesis topic.
Phelan's search for answers folds neatly into the second narrative, which centers upon the life of Nairn, an unschooled yet highly talented bard who lived centuries earlier. The relevance of Nairn's tale quickly intertwines with that of Phelan and Jonah, but even if the reader sees what is coming ahead of the big reveal (your average ppr—percipience per reader—may vary), no enjoyment is lost. By then, the hook is set, the alternating narratives have converged, and the reader has more pressing narrative concerns.
The book's structural neatness could easily prove forced or, worse, boring, in the hands of a lesser writer, but McKillip is an accomplished fantasist. She knows how much to relay, when to relay it, and when to move on to the next development. As a result, the economy of form and plotting—and indeed the entire world McKillip has constructed—itself mirrors a finely crafted riddle, answer included.
For readers who fancy themselves fans of bardic fiction, the title characters in The Bards of Bone Plain will be recognized as archetypal representations of the profession derived from the British Isles-rooted traditions of bard as poet, performer and chronicler. This should come as no surprise, as it is an archetype that McKillip herself helped solidify in the late 1970s with her influential Riddle Master Trilogy (The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir to Sea and Fire and Harpist in the Wind). If modern depictions of elves and dwarves stem from J.R.R. Tolkien, vampires from Anne Rice and zombies from George Romero, then contemporary fantasy bards have authors like McKillip (and Charles DeLint) to thank for their current shape in the popular consciousness.
With The Bards of Bone Plain, McKillip shows she has few peers when it comes to this brand of bard-olatry.