Book review: Song for the Basilisk by Patricia A. McKillip

I wholly believe that reading good literature is one of the best ways to improve your writing. My childhood library didn’t stock Ms. McKillip’s books. If they had, I might have grown to be a better writer much earlier in my life.

I enjoyed reading other authors that were popular at the same time. I spent a lot of time reading Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, but there’s a poetry to McKillip’s work that can be difficult to find.

Remembering how much I liked the books of hers I read when I first got married and we lived two blocks from a library, I decided to look her books up on Amazon when I found myself short of reading material. I didn’t spend much time picking, instead taking a blind gamble and buying the first book on the list I hadn’t read. It ended up being a great choice.

Song for the Basilisk is an unusual fantasy story in that magic is but a small undercurrent, brought to life by music. The main character, Caladrius, is not the typical fantasy hero either: He’s a musician in his 40s who  never became a full-fledged bard, despite spending almost his entire life in their school.

He wants nothing more out of life; staying on the rocky island of Luly with the bards as a teacher is enough. But if he had what pleased him, there wouldn’t be much story, and so we find him driven from his home in Luly by dreams of fire that seem to chase him no matter what he does. Unwilling to remember his life before the bards, before the fire that haunts him, he finds himself reluctantly leaving everything behind to rediscover his name. It’s in this search that we’re introduced to the Basilisk–a prince so called because of the monster on his family’s banners, and because of his eyes in a peculiar shade of reptilian green.

One of the unusual traits of this book is that we begin the story knowing what Caladrius himself does not; the beginning hides nothing, but instead shows the struggle in which he tries to forget who he was. It’s less about unraveling secrets and more about coming to know the lead character in all his stages of life, learning to sympathize with him and watching him grow.

Some may find the lack of suspense off-putting, but for those looking for a tale of character growth, this book has a lot to offer.

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