Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip (thoughts)
I shudder to think chance alone introduced me to Patricia McKillip last summer when I was browsing my library’s fantasy section. In a brief six months, I’ve now read five of her novels, and she’s become a firm favourite of mine. Thank heavens she has quite a back list to her name and is still publishing! I have yet to read any of her series, so have just been picking books at random from the catalogue to request. I love not knowing what to expect as far as plots and characters go, while always knowing it will have McKillip’s incredible writing and rich imagination.
Song for the Basilisk has a powerful opening:
Within the charred, silent husk of Tormalyne Palace, ash opened eyes deep in a vast fireplace, stared back at the moon in the shattered window. The marble walls of teh chamber, once white as the moon and bright with tapestries, were smoke-blackened and bare as bone. Beyond the walls, the city was soundless, as if even words had burned.
And the rest of the book lives up to it! There’s a child secreted away, a rocky island home to the bards, a cruel ruler and his lizard-eyed daughter, and musicians who love their instruments as much as life itself. There are secret plots crisscrossing each other with every chapter, and even the minor characters are portrayed in memorable ways. It’s a strange, thrilling, enchanting book that made me deeply glad of my new ‘read fiction in as few sittings as possible’ approach. This one only took me two, and that was because I had to drop my mother off at the airport in between.
One of my favourite little bits in the book has to do with ‘muses.’ Giulia, one of the main characters, is a master musician who both performs and teaches at the capital’s school of music. A fellow teacher and performer, Hexel, is a handsome composer whose students frequently throw themselves at her. Hexel considers Giulia his muse, and thus imagines she should be at his beck and call, but Giuilia has none of it. Here’s a dialogue from early in the book:
“I need your inspiration. Tonight.”
“For the prince’s opera, what else?”
“Oh. Hexel, I can’t. I’m playing the picochet in the tavern tonight.”
He gazed at her, exasperated. “Not again.”
“It’s this day every week.”
“But I need you!”
“You are merciless.”
“So you are always telling me. Why can’t you find someone else to be your muse instead? All I do is inspire you with horror, headaches, frustration, and despair.”
“That’s why I need you,” Hexel said briskly. “Without proper proportions of despair, how can I tell if I’m doing anything right?”
I’m not sure if that’s as much fun out of context, but I loved how their relationship was one of equals and good friends, who are both artists and creators, rather than the traditional male active artist/female passive muse one. Let’s be honest: fantasy, like every other genre of literature, can have some gender problems. It’s wonderful that McKillip is both such a stunning, evocative writer and the kind of author any feminist can happily read.
Like all of her novels I’ve read, I recommend Song of the Basilisk to anyone who loves the fairy tale side of fantasy. Which I think covers at least half of the blogosphere! ;) She has fascinating characters, page-turning plots, vivid descriptions, and a fae-like mystery that I find irresistable. I can’t believe she doesn’t have a Gaiman/DWJ-esque cult following, to be honest. Yes, she’s that good. Promise!