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Thursday, March 06, 2008

cover of Alphabet of Thorn

The first time I read this book I had an insight into what makes McKillip's writing so powerful for me. I've been wanting to reread it for a while, and then after Ash Wednesday was reminded of it again because of the image and the insight that stuck with me. The book starts with a young child surviving a fire that destroys his family and entire house by hiding in a marble fireplace. McKillip describes this child who has turned to ash in the fireplace and then is shaped and sculpted back into human form when he is discovered by an uncle, and because her books take place where real magic happens, it takes a long time before you know whether the child was literally turned to ash by the flames, or if it is more figurative description of the trauma experienced by a child who watched his family burn. This is masterful, and it works perfectly because the child himself doesn't remember who he is and runs from the flames in his memory for a long time, even refusing to play the harp because it burns in his hands, until he is eventually he faces his memories and returns to face the man who destroyed his family, the Basilisk of the title. Like some other McKillip books stories, this story is full of the power of music, both beautiful and deadly.

The orphaned child is taken to the school of the bards, far north of the city and the provinces on a rocky island near the hinterlands, where there is wild magic and strange musical instruments, and where the first Bard learned his power. As a child he is called Rook for his dark eyes, and then later he goes by the name his uncle gave him-- Caladrius, for a bird whose song portends death. Rook's family was destroyed in a war between the four great houses of the city of Berylon. Each family has a totem figure; the ruthless man who crushed the other houses and seized power is Arioso Pellior, known as the Basilisk both for the symbol of his house but also for his strange and deadly powers.

Caladrius eventually goes to the Hinterlands to discover the flames in his memory he has feared and avoided since childhood, and once he comes to grips with his past he decides to return to Berylon for his revenge. Much of the story ties in with music-- there is a music school, with collected instruments from the north, including some with strange and dangerous powers. There are some beautiful, amazing moments... Caladrius and his son Hollis both playing on the deadly fire-bone pipe to try to kill the Basilisk (and they succeed in summoning some kind of deadly white basilisk that makes Pellior very ill), but as a blind and insightful old woman observes, they fail because they were each playing out of love for the other-- not for revenge but each to protect the other. Then, once Caladrius is revealed as the heir to Tormalyne house and they are being hunted through the city, he plays another set of pipes to travel somewhere safe-- they are transformed and travel as sound itself to the Hinterlands and back, although my prosaic description doesn't do justice to McKillip's beautiful evocation of this.

Also fascinating is Luna Pellior, daughter of the Basilisk-- not his firstborn, but heir in power and magic. She is enigmatic and dangerous, with green eyes that might be those of a mesmerizing serpent. Until the end of the story reveals her motivation and depth, I understood her very little; she orchestrates things perfectly for an appropriate justice-- the raven blinds the aging basilisk in some mysterious way that even the main participants don't fully understand-- and finally brings peace and harmony back to the city of Berylon.

This book is worth reading again.

Title:Song for the Basilisk
Author:Patricia McKillip
Date published:1998
Number of pages:306
Notes:second reading


Martin LaBar said...


Lark said...

It's always nice to find another McKillip fan! I think her work is brilliant. I enjoyed looking over your posts on her books. I think that rejection of vengeance you point out in the Riddlemaster trilogy is in this book too; I'll have to think more about that.

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