This is the second book from McKillip which has been translated into Finnish. The previous one, Ombria in Shadow, was translated over two years ago and I had already thought that Ombria would be the only translation we’d get. I’m happy see I was wrong.

Song for the Basilisk is set in a world were magic is subtle and only used by a few people. Otherwise is seems to be quite near to a pseudo-Medieval world with kings, princesses, and peasants.

A young boy is the only one to survive a fire and his great uncle and some other men take him away to an island called Luly where bards live and teach. The boy has forgotten his name in the horrors of the fire and he’s renamed Caladrius. When he comes to Luly, he’s named again as Rook Caladrius.

Years go by. Rook learns to play many instruments except the harp. The harp makes his memories of fire and ash to come to the surface and so he can’t play it. Unfortunately, many nobles expect that a bard should play the harp and so it’s unlikely that Rook will become a wandering bard. However, this is fine with him because he has no desire to leave the rocky island. While at the school, he falls in love with a baron’s daughter Sirina. When Rook leaves for the provinces to find his past, Sirina promises to wait for him.

Rook travels far but even in a couple of years he can’t find anything about his past. Finally he comes back to Luly where Sirina and their son Hollis wait for him. More than ten years pass. Sirina leaves Rook who doesn’t want to leave the rocky island. Hollis stays in the school and learns to be a bard.

One night a young man calling himself Griffin Tormalyne comes to Luly searching for great power. He wants to avenge the destruction of his family who used to rule the city of Berylon. But the arm of the destroyer, the Basilisk, is long and the school is burned and many of the bards killed. Rook realizes that he must find out his past and leaves for Berylon. He sends his son to Sirina’s castle.

In the city of Berylon, Giulia Dulcet is a magister in the Tormalyne music school. She is hired to conduct the annual opera in the honor of the city’s tyrant, Arioso Pellior whose symbol is the Basilisk. She also has to teach Pellior’s second daughter, Damiet, to sing. Unfortunately, Damiet’s only interests are colors and clothes, and she has no musical talent at all. Reluctantly, Giulia starts the job. She is also the muse of the man who’s writing the opera.

On her free time Giulia plays in taverns a one-stringed instrument, a pichocet which is considered a farmer’s instrument and scorned by many. She plays in a small group which includes her lover Justin Tabor. Justin doesn’t approve of her new job but Giulia knows that she doesn’t have a choice; if she refuses Pellior might destroy the music school which is the last remnant of the old ruling family the Tormalynes. Unknown to her, however, Justin is a part of rebellious group which is plotting the downfall of the Basilisk.

One night a strange man comes to the tavern and asks to play her pichocet. She agrees and notices that some soldier come to the tavern and are looking for someone. After the soldiers leave, the stranger leaves, too. Soon, Pellior’s castle gets a new librarian who looks quite familiar.

Arioso Pellior’s older daughter Lady Luna is a sorceress. Her father taught her many things, among them magic, poisons, and ruthlessness. Even though Pellior has a son, Taur, the ruler loathes him and intends to make Luna the real power behind the throne. Luna has grown in the atmosphere of secrecy and hatred, and under the thumb of her father.

One night Pellior finds out that someone has been smuggling weapons to the city. An ox wagon had a load of swords, and one man set the wagon on fire and escaped. Pellior charges Luna to find the stranger.

Justin Tabor is a conspirator in a secret group which is trying to kill Arioso Pellior. The leader of the group is his cousin Nicol who is constantly pushing everyone else to do what they can. Justin hates that Giulia has to bow and scrape to a murderer in order to keep her job and the music school alive.

The book can seem somewhat slow but the language is wonderful, the magic is mysterious, and the atmosphere is dream-like and fantastic. The ending is also quite different from many other fantasy books. The magic is lot explained and the reader is sometimes left to wonder what was symbolic and what happened only in the characters mind and what happened in the real world.

McKillip’s characters are also somewhat dream-like. We aren’t treated to their every thought or action. This is especially clear in the first few chapters when years go by and we are only given some information about them but definitely not everything. However, to me the feelings, motives, and the personalities of the characters were clear, and I wasn’t left wanting to know more.

The main themes of the book are music, magic, and forgiveness. How violence isn’t a solution to everything but can instead do irreparable harm. That’s very refreshing for a genre where the characters’ response to violence is closer to a computer characters’ than a real persons’.