Monday, June 28, 2010

Song For The Basilisk by Patricia A. McKillip


"He saw the Basilisk's eyes, then, searching for him and he turned back into ash.

'Take him to Luly,' he heard the white haired man say clearly.  'No one will expect to find him there.  If they ever suspect he is still alive.'

'To Luly?  That's nowhere. The end of the world.'

'Then it might just be far enough for the Basilisk.'

'But the bards-- they're scarcely human, are they?  They live on a rock in the sea, they go in and out of the hinterlands, they can turn into seals--'

'Tales,' the white haired man said brusquely.  'Go before they find us here, I'll finish this.'

'You'll be killed.'

'Does it matter?  Tell them to call him Caladrius, after the bird whose song means death.  Go.'"  ~Song for the Basilisk by Patricia A. McKillip


Griffin Tourmaline was a child when Arioso Pellior, the Basilisk of Pellior house, slaughtered his noble family.  He only escaped by hiding in the ashes of the fireplace.  When discovered he was called Caladrius then hidden away on the isle of Luly.  There he became a bard, living by the name Rook, hiding not only from the Basilisk, but from a past he refused to remember.  It is only when the Basilisk’s eye turns toward Luly that Rook also called Caladrius and Griffin, must remember his past and must face the Basilisk in Berylon to play a song for him of death and revenge.

Once again, World Fantasy Award winning author, Patricia A. McKillip gives us a beautifully woven tale, full of clever dreamlike descriptions, imagination, and well rounded characters in Song for the Basilisk.

Within the first section of the book,  McKillip masterfully builds the rich character that is Rook.  Its necessary for the story and necessary for him, for he has been running from his past, and it is this past that drives him, molds him, makes him who he is, and what makes the reader sympathize him and love him.

We see him make a life for himself and, as McKillip writes:

He picked her up and carried her out to sea.
And so the years passed.
The child in the ashes waited.

He pushes his past, and the knowledge of his past, aside to grow up first.  It is only years later, after his child is grown, he remembers to find himself.
This is what I respect about McKillip; she shows all the rich layers that get added to a character as time passes, but beneath it all is still that one thing that drives/molds/shapes.   And she led us through it all in the first chapter. Not many authors write Fantasy with older MC’s, but McKillip does it and does it well.

An advantage of working with and older main character, and an older antagonist, is that the parent/child relationship can be explored.  This relationship forms a, albeit subtle, pull throughout the book and gently molds conflict within the plot.  Hollis’s effect on Caladrius keeps him human, in a way.  In fact one could argue that Hollis is one of the reasons Caladrius rediscovers his past in the ashes.  Another relationship, a father/daughter relationship between the Arioso and Luna, forms a problem for Caladrius.  In this relationship, however, McKillip explores another aspect of the connection between parent and child: being a child and being, to quote Luna Pellior “What our father’s made us.” This is an interesting turn of phrase because being made like her father, does not necessarily mean she is like her father. She may love him and she may seek his approval, but she is also her own person.   It is this relationship of adopting some aspects of a parent, and yet the child is still their own person, making their own choices, and learning from the elder’s mistakes.   

In a way, this brings about a second theme, one that is also presented in The Book of Atrix Wolfe: The legacy given by parents to their children.  Arioso expects his bloody legacy to be carried on by his children. Caladrius/Rook/Griffin fears his own legacy of hate and revenge will be passed on to Hollis.

The rest of the story is dedicated to Rook, now Caladrius, avenging his House and destroying the Basilisk of Pellior House.  The change of name is no accident it seems.  As the MC’s name changes, so does his strength.  He flattens a little during the second section of the book, as his motives turn soley towards revenge.  He is, in this section, no longer Rook from but Caladrius, named for the bird that plays a song at the deathbed of a king.   And he plays that song at the end of the second section.

 Other characters keep the book moving with subplots of rebellion and the build up to the birthday feast where Caladrius will play his song.  The court composer is even composing an opera that mirrors Rooks life and hints and the future.  McKillip introduces some subtle but brilliant foreshadowing when her characters repeat now and then that an ending can be changed.  Although there are multiple characters in this second section, Luna Pellior is one of the strongest characters with the strongest voices.  Sometimes she outshines even Caladrius himself.

The ending has a bit of a surprise to it, but then again, maybe not.  It just shows again McKillip’s great understanding that characters are people with their own thoughts, feelings, and minds, and not simple archetypes.  I love the ending of this book, and it is the ending which echoes with me and is what I remember most about this work.

Song for the Basalisk, as a whole,  seems to find its roots within other McKillip tales.  The short story A Matter of Music seems to be much the source for Luly and Guilia is a displaced, renamed Cresce.  The tale of the bard in the hinterland as well as Rook/Caladrius’s ability to hide himself, echoes of Morgon from The Riddlemaster of Hed.  These echoes and incarnations, however, just added to the tale and the themes that make a McKillip story memorable.

Music is the backbone around which McKillip builds her story.  While nice, she didn’t close and envelope the story with this theme as well or as masterfully as she has done in other works, notably The Book of Atrix Wolfe.  This is a petty criticism however, for a story that was still wonderfully written, imaginative, and spellbinding.


 I’m torn between four and four and a half stars.  In terms of fantasy literature, it is an exceptional and unique work.  The characters are multilayered and dimensional, and the creativity and uniqueness of her novel is unmatched.  The word choice is fluid and flawless and I would read this book over and over again.  I can’t give full five stars, however, because I know McKillip has written better.  The music theme got a little too saturated at points to really give the impact that she got out of works such as The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Book of Atrix Wolfe and Ombria in Shadow.  Caladrius also got a little overshadowed.  Again, these criticisms are small, for Song for the Basilisk is well worth the read and is satisfying for any lover of fantasy, folktale, or fairy tale.

Book Review by Jenny Fierro.

Jenny Fierro talks fantasy literature, writing, and other such nonsense on her blog Seedlings


  1. Fantastic! It's great to have you on the team Jenny. And the book looks really intriguing!

  2. My sister has read some of McKillip's books, but I haven't yet. I'll have to add this to my reading list as well as the other books you mentioned. Nice style review. Very thoughtful.