McKillip is a master of combining romantic, poetic description with humor and realism, and in Bards of Bone Plain, as usual, she achieves a perfect balance.
The novel meshes two stories, set several hundred years apart. I love that both time periods have a realistic sense of history, of both past and future. Too often, books are like: "Well, this is the past, and this is the future." Nope. here, even the past has a past...
The 'present' here is a steam-age monarchy, slightly hazy around the edges, but believable. Here, unmotivated student Phelan Cle decides to write his final thesis on the legendary figure of Nairn, a bard with a 'Wandering Jew'-type myth surrounding his historical record. And Princess Beatrice, much to her mother's dismay, insists on being involved in the archaeological digs organized by Phelan's alcoholic but brilliant father.
In the past, we discover the true story of Nairn - a musically talented farm boy who encounters Declan, a court bard who is attempting to reconstruct a system of true magic that once was associated with the bardic arts.
Music and magic combine in a gorgeous swirl of alchemy, as the two stories progress in parallel, culminating in a bardic competition where more is at stake that anyone might guess.