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Song for the Basilisk
Patricia McKillip
Ace Books, 314 pages

Kinuko Y. Craft
Song for the Basilisk
Patricia McKillip
Patricia McKillip started writing as a teenager. Her interest in writing fantasy blossomed after reading Lord of the Rings. She is the winner of the World Fantasy Award, and author of many fantasy novels, including The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Riddlemaster of Hed, The Sorceress and the Cygnet, and The Cygnet and the Firebird. Her most recent novels are Winter Rose, The Book of Atrix Wolf and Song for the Basilisk. She lives in Roxbury, New York.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

For centuries the walled city of Berylon was ruled by the House of Tormalyne, until rival Pellior House, led by the man known as the Basilisk, rose up and took the city for itself. A single Tormalyne heir survives the massacre of his family and the burning of his home by hiding in a fireplace. In order that the strangely gifted Basilisk will not find him, he turns his thoughts to ash. Rescued by a few scattered Tormalyne survivors, he is renamed -- Caladrius, after the bird that sings at the deathbed of a king -- and sent to Luly, a school for bards so far away it is nearly at the end of the world.

Thirty-seven years pass. Caladrius becomes a master of music, and begets a son, Hollis. He has willed himself to forget his identity, his heritage, the carnage that claimed his family. He wants nothing more than to stay on Luly forever, though he can never become a bard, for to play the harp, the bard's instrument, brings him too close to the threshold of memory. But when a descendant of one of the surviving Tormalynes comes to Luly, seeking the power it is rumoured the bards possess, the wall of Caladrius' forgetfulness is breached at last. Dreaming of fire, he remembers who he is, and vows vengeance.

Caladrius travels to Berylon -- followed, without his knowledge, by Hollis -- and takes a post as music librarian in the Basilisk's household. He acquires a fire-bone pipe, an instrument that plays what lies deepest in the player's heart, and can make music into death. He intends to play a killing song at the Basilisk's birthday celebration. But there are others who have plans for the celebration -- Hollis, who also has found a fire-bone pipe, and a group of revolutionaries intent on restoring Tormalyne House to power. Within the frame of the performance of the opera commissioned for the occasion, whose plot accidentally embodies the truth of Caladrius' story, all these elements collide, with results unforeseen by any of them.

Though it takes the form of a tale of revenge, Song for the Basilisk is really, like so many of McKillip's novels, about love, transformation, and power: the power of memory, of hatred, of forgiveness, of family, of self. And of music. Music -- the mystic music of the bards of Luly, the wild music of the magic-rich hinterlands, the ordered music of the magisters of Berylon -- both drives the story and is its central metaphor. Music enables Caladrius to forget his past, and then stirs him to memory; it is the vengeance he chooses, and also the way in which Hollis makes claim upon his father's heritage. It is the purest expression of feeling -- throughout the book characters express their grief, their longing, their unrequited love through the music of the picochet, a peasant instrument tied to the wild powers of the earth. And Caladrius' journey of revenge and restoration is also (though he does not know it) a quest to become the bard he was meant to be, by unlocking the personal power that loss and fear have trapped within him.

McKillip is without doubt one of the finest stylists now working in the fantasy genre. Her exquisite, evocative prose sings with all the power and magic of the music she describes. Her technique is elliptical, sometimes challengingly so: a great deal of latitude is left for interpretation, and often more than one reading is required to tease out the meaning of a scene or passage. Experiences and emotions are not so much described, as evoked -- Caladrius' vow of vengeance, for instance, is embodied in his dream of a mythical beast; his forgotten and remembered heritage is expressed in images of ravens; his sorrow is conveyed through metaphors of ash. Characters' conversations are terse and oblique, with much more left unsaid than revealed. The story spends a great deal of time outside its protagonists' heads -- an enigmatic, somewhat detached narrative style that periodically abandons its cool distance for moments of wrenching emotional clarity.

Song for the Basilisk is demanding reading. Yet such is the beauty of the writing, the vividness of the images, the truth of the emotions, and the strength of the characterizations, that it's possible to read the book for these things alone, without dipping more deeply into the complex web of symbol and allusion that lies beneath the fairy-tale surface. This would be a shame, for it's in those deeper levels that the book's real power resides. But such literary qualities are not very often a feature of contemporary fantasy, nor are they much regarded where they do occur. The novel's accessible upper layer will at least ensure a popular readership for this fine author, who deserves much more acclaim not only outside but within her genre, and hopefully ensure many books to come for those who value complex, challenging, truly literary fantasy fiction.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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