Song for the Basilisk
Patricia McKillip

Category: Fantasy
Morality: C+
Writing: A-

Duke Arioso Pellior took power in Berylon forty years ago, overthrowing the ruling Tourmalyne house and murdering all its members — or so he thought. Caladrius, a young boy at the time of the carnage, survived, and has returned to Berylon to seek justice against the murderer of his family. Caught up in the plot are many other characters, variously involved in Caladrius’ mission, including Giulia Dulcet, a music teacher at the Tourmalyne School of Music, and Hollis, Caladrius’ son who seeks to help his father in his mission for vengeance.

McKillip offers consistently good fare, and this book is no exception. Most of her books have an imagery-theme which serves as a sort of center around which her profuse and fluid images and story lines wander. In this book, the central image is music — the sound of it, the instruments that produce it, and the notation that preserves it for posterity. All the characters are tied in some way to at least one of these three forms of music, and McKillip creates this central theme masterfully. The writing is, as always, breathtakingly beautiful, and the imagery innovative and complex.

I did feel like the author cheated a little in the end — she was content to leave a supernatural defeat of the enemy a mystery to the characters involved and therefore to the readers as well, and one character’s complete reversal in terms of apparent affiliation left the book a bit muddy morally (or maybe it was just my confusion in trying to recast the character’s actions throughout the rest of the book in light of the sudden revelation), besides seeming too simple. Morally in general, the book was the usual McKillip blur, described in previous reviews. The magic seemed surprisingly clearly morally delineated, until the reversal at the end which confused everything (for me anyway); several characters also are apparently sleeping together unmarried, and it is unclear whether Caladrius ever married Hollis’ mother; however, this is not a significant part of the plot, and the book doesn’t offer judgment either way on it.

McKillip does explore the theme of vengeance and the harm it does to the person determined to carry it out — even when it may be justified. Interestingly, in spite of his obsession with bringing vengeance to Duke Pellior, Caladrius does not want his son involved in the quest; he recognizes that his dedication to vengeance is eating him from inside, and doesn’t want Hollis to suffer the same fate. I found this, if not incredibly profound, at least meaningful and insightful.

Posted by Sasha | November 5, 2003

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