No one knows where Bone Plain lies, or if it even exists outside of poetry, or what the three tests bards are said to face there may consist of, or if madness and deathlessness are truly consequences of failing the tests or just another metaphor. This hasn't stopped bardic students at the school on the hill from writing their final papers on Bone Plain for centuries, and Phelan Cle has every intention of being another of them; the benefit of a topic on which everything has been said is that he shouldn't have to think very hard. Meanwhile, the king's youngest daughter Princess Beatrice spends her days at an archeological dig vaguely supervised by Phelan's eccentric father, Jonah Cle, excavating artifacts covered with unreadable hen scratchings. When the Royal Bard nearly chokes on a fish bone and announces his retirement, neither Phelan nor Beatrice has much initial interest in the competition to choose a replacement, but then his research and her excavations start leading in the same direction: towards the semi-legendary bard Nairn the Wanderer, the Unforgiven, who failed the tests of Bone Plain and may still be seeking redemption.
It's always difficult to summarize a Patricia McKillip novel briefly; her work is so intricate and her prose is so beautiful that the only way to do it justice is to read the whole thing. I may as well say up front that she is one of my favorite fantasists, not least because she can tell a whole story in one book, but also because her writing is so lyrical; I always think it should really be read out loud. She is also one of the few authors whose novels I still buy as a matter of course; I mostly borrow novels from the library and only buy reference books that I intend to use often, but I bought this book as close to the day it came out as I could. I can't recommend it enough.