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I have been a little apprehensive about new McKillip in recent years. She's never unreadable, but sometimes she does not pull off what she's trying to do, and things like Od Magic are just frankly a mess. This one, though, this is her best since at least Ombria in Shadow (which came out in 2002), and I haven't reread that one in a while but I think this may even be better.

In her last couple of books, Solstice Wood and The Bell at Sealey Head, McKillip has been trying a more modern tech level than her previously usual high medieval. Sealey Head has carriages and a general Regency feel, while Solstice has a modern-contemporary-this-world setting. Neither book gels well and the way that the technology doesn't quite interface with McKillip's usual metaphors is a major reason. This time, however, it works. One of the time threads in this book is vaguely steampunk and vaguely modern but still a land of the fantastic, and it flows beautifully in a way that reminds me pleasingly of Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark books, which are the only other thing I've seen do modernity and ancient tradition mingled in quite the same direction. (There are other resonances with Dalemark, too, which is A Good Thing, as those Jones do a lot of things one doesn't see fantasy do much.)

The other major thing to compare this book to is far more obvious and inescapable. In a way, Bone Plain is rewriting, or at least recombining the elements from, McKillip's classic Riddlemaster trilogy. The settings are sufficiently similar that I spent a while trying to determine whether this was the same country two hundred years on. (No.) But it doesn't feel like a rehash to me, like a paucity of invention; it feels like a new book which can be read by itself but plays off the other, ringing changes on the previous in a way almost but not quite a genuine alternate-universe version.

One of the major ways the presence of the modern thread affects things, therefore, the presence of modernity, is that the women here have so much more agency than they do in the Riddlemaster books, where they are generally awesome but have trouble sometimes actually accomplishing anything. Here we get an archaeologist princess, politely determined that her mother is not going to reroute her into a less grubby sort of hobby, cheerfully ignoring cocktail parties in order to clean off some interesting brickwork; and in a society where bards and harping are drastically important and the position of Royal Bard is one of great power and responsibility, the best musician in the country is female. We did not get female harpers in the Riddlemaster books. I really appreciate it now. There's also a romance that I find entertaining and touching, and a relationship that isn't a romance but would have been in any other book, which is a thing I applaud when I see it happen.

And I'm not going to say much about the plot, or any more about the characters, because after all these years McKillip can still manage to genuinely, honestly surprise me, which is rare for me. There is a thing which I figured out in chapter two, and said to myself 'oh dear, I hope I have not guessed the big reveal, that would be sad', and then I discovered later on that she had anticipated the reader figuring it out and was using it as cover for what the book is actually doing, and I cannot tell you how much I enjoy it when writers treat me as an intelligent person this way. It would really not be fair of me to give any kind of plot summary, therefore. If you like McKillip, this one's great; if you don't know whether you like McKillip, this is probably a pretty good place to start. I loved this and I hope it heralds more books of this quality.


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