And that is a book report. But I find I have something to say.( This year's books, so far... )
#92 -- Patricia A. McKillip, The Bards of Bone Plain
First thing: I have had an uncomfortable situation with reading McKillip these past couple years, and it has to do with getting older. I've had a theory about this: That when I started reading her books I was very, very young, and they were, and are, very special to me. The Riddle-Master of Hed
is what I read when I am viciously sick, because it's sort of like a warm blanket wrapped around you. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
is the only book to ever make me sit upright in my bath, where I was reading it, and sob because I knew what was about to go down and I couldn't find a way to stop it. Those books imparted truths, and I have thought for years that part of why I loved them so much is because I was young and didn't know certain things, and then they told me. And that's been why some of her more recent stuff, I haven't loved as well: because now I'm older, and I know some more things, and really this is nobody's fault but all the same it's rather sad.
Second thing: I finished this book this morning. I stayed up to finish it. Yes, until seven in the morning.
Third thing: It is taking an unholy beating
And y'know? I object. Not because I've suddenly changed my tune on books and taste and the right of everyone to have different opinions on different books. But because I have finally figured out a thing, and in the dim winter dawnlight that's filtering through my window, it's absolutely brilliant.
The crap The Bards of Bone Plain
is getting mostly has to do with repetition: People are not happy that she is writing about bards (again), or music (again), or a scholarly grad school environment (again), and so forth. The pertinent comment was "feels like a re-run", and I can also feel the list of familiar elements from past books: mysterious ancient harpists who are not what they seem; a plain that exists in two worlds, and likewise the tower upon it; greatest magic, keeping pigs; music; poetry; riddling contests; a mentor figure who is actually inexpressibly old; figures of legend having dwelt quietly beside you in real life; digging through old libraries for history; schools of knowledge and magic; princesses who have different ideas on pricessing, and their rather indulgent fathers; the ghosts of past powers, trapped in stone; language, and its power.
I could go on.
But here's the thing, and here's what I just figured out about McKillip and her work, now that I'm older still: What she's doing isn't repetition. This isn't a case of reusing the same themes because an author's run out of new things to talk about, or of the reader growing out of the wonder that they originally derived from the author just doing their thing. That's what I thought before, and maybe there was something to it, to that twist of the relationship between the reader and writer, but that's not what ultimately is going on here.
McKillip writes about music. She writes about riddles, and she writes about poetry.
What those repeating, interweaving, slightly-different ideas and images and symbols in every single book she writes really are are motif
As in the musical sense. As in a perceivable or salient recurring fragment or succession of notes
She's making music, guys. And making it over the space of years, over multiple novels, dropping fragments of ideas like theme and variation so you hear it and remember, half-asleep, soft dark rooms and pages and where you were those many years ago, and flesh those ideas out yourselves without her having to say the words. So that all these little actions, or set pieces, or thoughts take on this unholy heft and resonance, just like thoughtful Telemachus
, or the wine-dark sea, or þæt wæs god cyning
. Every repetition, every mention, they build, until they build a hum like the earth moving.
She's writing music, and epic poetry, and the whole of her output is the poem.
And here's my proof:
There's a point at the climax of The Bards of Bone Plain
where a character we know has access to magic shouts, and it's mentioned later that people heard a shout and the wall of a stone colosseum cracked. And there's a point in the middle where there's an altercation and neither of the POV characters there are quite sure what went on: just that an inn door was blown off its hinges and all one heard was the low note on a harp string. Later, and earlier, where the low note on a harp string is used to snap another harpist's instrument and blows the top off a tower.
And I knew exactly what was going on. Because I know what a Great Shout is, and I remember the harp string pitched so low it shatters swords.
Neither of these things were mentioned in this book. And they didn't have to be.
I have read the rest of the poem and I kept up
And thing is, I should have seen it sooner: I've been wondering for years
if the riddle Morgon of Hed tells, or is told, about the woman who took in a small black thing and fed it, and fed it, until it grew to fill the whole house and stalked her room to room was some adulterated story about Sybel and the Blammor, somehow hopped across book-universes, passed down, embellished, half-forgotten, until it nested in another story as nothing more than a riddle.
It's happened before. She's done this for years. And twice is coincidence, but three times (or more!) is enemy action.
The funny thing? She's told us exactly what she's up to. You can't expect to read an author who talks so much, and so lovingly, about the secret meanings of ordinary words; the power held in languages; that words are outright magic
to not at least try something like this, and to hide it right in plain sight.
So. Dear Patricia McKillip: I have finally, finally caught you. I see what you did there.
Hats off. I am impressed as hell, and smiling.