The book is at first divided into two parts. The books present, which is an Edwardian type era, with touches of old school bardic embellishments (it makes sense in the book, I promise) and features Phelan, a young man of great talent who spends his time scraping through bard school and chasing after his drunken, brilliant, eccentric archaeologist father Jonah. Beatrice, the youngest daughter of the king with a love for all things ancient, which leads her to be part of Jonah's digs instead of a proper princess. Zoe, a phenomenal bard of immense talent and skill. Lastly we have Jonah and Kelda, two strange men with stranger histories. The other part of this book takes place in the past, set in the same place as the modern story, but set thousands of years before in a medieval era. This story features Nairn, a crofter who has learned the ancient songs to become a bard of power and destined to become legend. Declan the bard of the conqueror king, who builds the bard school that stands to modern times. Odelet, a high-born beauty that enchants all, and feeds many. Welkin, a bard of force from unknown places. Also a "character" in both stories is the standing stones that litter the river and plain that is the setting for these stories. Essentially, in short telling, there is a great bardic competition to become the kings new bard. This competition has been held for thousands of years and brings musicians from all over the land to the city to compete. Meanwhile Phelan is just trying to get through his schooling, and one of the requirements is a paper which he decides to write about the Bone Plain. He does this because it should be easy as the legend has been written of hundreds of times before. Of course nothing is this simple and the arrival of a man named Kelda, who knows the mysterious words of an ancient order known as The Circle of Days throws everything into chaos. We flash back and forth between the past and present, putting pieces of the legend of Nairn, the Three Trials of Bone Plain, ancient rune-words that describe everyday things, yet hold immense power, Phelan's unusually knowledgeable father, and an unbroken line of stewards to discover that Jonah, is actually Nairn, and the legend of the Three Trials holds more truth then fiction. This all comes to a loud and stunning conclusion, with Jonah/Nairn redeeming himself after thousands of years of failure, Zoe passing the trials to become the new royal bard, Phelan and Beatrice finding mutual love, and a mystery solved. All of this in language that is so beautiful it makes you want to cry.
I loved this book. It is less a book and more of a story, if that makes any sense. Let me see if I can put into words what appeals to me so much about this book. To start with the lyricalness of the writing is just beautiful, yet it is completely readable. A lot of time a writer uses that lyrical style and it can be hard to follow, but that is not the case in this book. I love almost any book that uses the strong bardic tradition, as it is one of my favorites. I love the concept of history, deeds, hero's, wars, events, and all kinds of stuff being passed down by people trained to use it as a combination of entertainment and news. I liked that the author would start off the history sections with the bardic version of events, which tend to have the patina of embellishment across it, and then proceed to give us the more accurate, mundane version of what really happened. I saw the "twist" coming a mile away, but that did not detract too much from the overall story. I do wish that since the Three Trials turned out to be real not once, but twice, that it was better explained just what the trials were and how it was that Nairn failed them and Zoe/Jonah passed them, it never made any sense at all, which was unfortunately very frustrating as it was the crux of the whole story. The fact that the words of power were everyday words like bread, water, field and such made me happy. You could see the use of them in the everyday, especially in the older times when people would use the individual words as tradition, or labels, or draw it in the flour because their grandmother did it, never knowing the power that lay in the words and at the same time realizing that it is the everyday tasks of living that make up the Circle of Days, and without them life could not continue and the magic would fail. The characters talk about collecting songs and stories as one would a treasure, delighting in finding new ones, or variations they had never heard before and now I want a treasure room full of stories and songs. I remember trying to read one of Ms. McKillips books when I was younger and having a hard time getting through it, but now that I am old and a wee bit more patient I find I like the style and pacing of at least this book very much. I picked up the book this time around because the cover was just to stunning to not be on my shelf, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the scenes on both the front and back of the book are actually in the story. Ok enough trying to get across all my happy feelings on this book and more going to buy more of them :-) I give this book 8 out of 10 harps and recommend it to anybody who likes high fantasy, music, or amazing book covers.
Do you ever go back and retry books you had a hard time with before? Do you love it as much as I do when a book lives up to its pretty cover? What type of book makes you lose track of reality? Who wants to come and sing all of my books to me?