Like most of McKillip’s books, Bards of Bone Plain has several interlocking tales. In the book’s present, Phelen Cle is close to graduating from the school for bards. All he has to do is choose a topic for his paper—an easy topic. Instead, he finds himself puzzling over the story of Nairn and his trials at the mysterious Bone Plain—a place which might or might not exist and might or might not be a part of an ancient magic. Princess Beatrice, the king’s youngest daughter, works for Phelen’s father excavating and is puzzling over some newly found items inscribed with ancient writing rumored to be magic. A strange bard arrives and offers to teach the students. In the past, the bard Nairn learns his trade and studies magic with a former enemy. In both timelines, there is a competition to choose the kingdom’s bards. In both times, the result could be disaster. The occasional short, historical entry helps to join the two stories as further links between the two times emerge.
Readers familiar with McKillip will recognize some of the elements: The stones that move, the strange, possibly dangerous and definitely frightening teacher, and an overall concern with art and its effects. The novels always end up being different, however, and The Bards of Bone Plain stands on its own as a story and a meditation on the arts, especially the power of words. Unlike many of her books, the novel is set in a time of both steam and horse powered trams and cars. They are not prominent enough to make the novel “steampunk,” but are an unusual item in her work.
The narration is arranged by the type of text: Charlotte Parry reads the historical introductions present before some of the chapters while Marc Vietor reads the rest of the book. This works extremely well for 99.9% of the time. The one moment where it does not work occurs right at the beginning where, for some reason, Charlotte Parry is spliced in to read a mid-text riddle. That never happens again and is only worth mentioning because it is so close to the beginning.
It is quickly apparent that Mark Vietor is one of the narrators worth listening to, worth following from book to book. He gives the large group of characters distinctive voices, keeps track of all of them, and makes none of them sound silly. When the voice is described in the text, his choice matches McKillip’s description. Because of him, this is going to be a book worth listening to more than once.