May 2008

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’.

Here’s another of my reviews: Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come

I gave the book full 5 stars and I really liked this one. It’s set at the time of Elizabeth I with spying and scary faeries.

Last in the Shadow series. It’s a very fitting ending, really, but I’d like to read more about her some day. Well, I’ll just have to see how the other books hold up to these ones.

This time the pace is noticeable slower than in the previous books and the atmosphere is also somewhat more sombre. Of course, Shadow and her friends have quite a difficult foe this time, too: a plague. In the best fantasy tradition, they go on a quest to find a mythical cure for the disease. Of course, the quest only takes a few days and clearly wetter than is the norm.

The book start slower than the previous ones but (at least to me) it’s okay because we get to see some fine character interaction and elvan, er, traditions. 😉 Donya is looking for a husband to rule the city with her and the elves get to be shocked about the human arranged marriage thing. This makes sense, of course. If you live for hundreds of years, marriage to a person you don’t even like would seem truly fate worse than death. Shadow herself is over 500 years old and Aspen is around 1200.

I really liked Mist and I can only hope that he get to make appearances in the further books. There was some interesting contrasts between what different characters thought be honourable. At first I thought that Farryn was being more than a little dense but it seems that it’s likely that his village didn’t have trading or merchants at all. So, in a culture where there is no need to produce extra items, thieves are literally taking food out of somebody else’s mouth and possibly leaving a good hunter or farmer to die. No wonder he was so cranky to Shadow!

I’m far from convinced that thieves actually work for their money, no matter how much Shadow tried to explain it to Mist. I was a bit surprised that Mist didn’t have counterexamples of someone stealing his catch and leaving him hungry.

I’m still going to miss Shadow and likely I’ll read the series again sometime.

Booking Through Thursday

Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?

I read quite a few English grammar books when I was at the uni but I didn’t own them. Today I own one French grammar book and a couple of Finnish grammar books but none of English grammar. I’ve got quite a few dictionaries though: three Finnish-English-Finnish, one English, one Latin-Finnish, two Finnish-French-Finnish ones. I’ve also got one English thesaurus. But these days I use on-line dictionaries far more both free and bought.

This is the first in the mystery series in Ancient Egypt and Lieutenant Bak as the main character. He’s the detective at the fortress of Buhen.

The book starts when Bak and Troop Captain Nebwa are summoned to the presence of the fortress’ commander, Thuty. Nebwa’s wife has just given birth to their first son and Nebwa is celebrating. However, Bak manages to drag him off and Nebwa challenges him to skiff race. Misfortune strikes and Bak’s skiff overturns and so he finds a dead body floating in the river.

Bak and his three friends haul the body out of the water and search it. It seems to be a high-born officer and he seems to have been murdered. Commander Thuty isn’t happy because he has a more pressing concern: the Lord Amon is coming down the river on its way to the fortress of Iken where it should heal an ailing young prince. The statue is made of gold and so the soldiers have to guard it very carefully. Also, they expect an influx of crowds to see the god and possibly more thieves and muggers.

However, the murdered man turns out to be the son of the Chancellor to the Queen Hatshepsut herself and he expects quick results. And so Bak is assigned to solve the murder. He must travel to the fortress Iken where the murder victim, Puemre, has been assigned as the officer. There he finds out that Puemre is was much loved by his troops who consider him to be a brave and honest leader. However, Puemre’s fellow officers disagree; some of them dislike the favor his family ties give him and all resent his ambitious ways. Bak feels that he has too many suspects.

In addition he find a subtle clue which seem to point that there’s a conspiracy to murder a Kushite king Amon-Psaro and start a war between the Kush tribes and Egypt. Amon-Psaro is brining his son the prince to see the god Amon so that the god would heal the boy. Bak’s time is running out.

Haney writes well. She manages to bring the setting to life with descriptions of details. Bak’s skeptical attitudes towards the healing abilities of the statue seem a bit too modern but otherwise the characters seem quite historical. Bak and his friends are lower class so the scenes are all of the ordinary life of people at the time.

The plot moves a little slowly at times but later on it has quite a few twists. The characters are engaging and likable for the most part.

The main characters in this book are a father and son investigative team. Lord Meren is Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s Eyes and Ears, and as such the chief investigator. Lord Meren’s adoptive son Kysen works as his partner. They have good relationship both during work and outside of it.

The Place of Anubis is the place where the bodies of the deceased are prepared for mummification and so it’s a holy place. A group of priests and workmen find that someone has left a murdered body there, and quite possibly committed a murder there, and so desecrated the place. The chief priests are of course leaning on the 14-years old Pharaoh to quickly find the murderer and execute him.

Lord Meren and his son are commanded to find the murderer and they have a tight schedule. They search the Place of Anubis without finding anything of note. One of the workers there recognized the body: he’s Hormin, a scribe whom everyone seems to have hated. Lord Meren concentrates on Hormin’s family: his two sons, wife, and a concubine. The concubine is notorious for her greed and for the number of men she entertains. Hormin’s long-suffering wife hates the concubine but loves her family. Hormin’s eldest son isn’t too quick witted and Hormin has always scorned him because of it. The son, Imsety, is however a good at supervising farms and wanted his father to sell his farm to him. Hormin refused and everyone thinks he didi it just out of spite. Hormin’s second son, Djaper, is also a scribe and very intelligent and ambitious which his father didn’t approve of either. Many think that Djaper could have been promoted over Hormin. Then there are of course the other scribes who didn’t like Hormin’s acidic nature at all. At the same time, there is intrigue brewing in the court.

The concubine is from the village of the tomb-makers who seem to know quite a bit about Hormin and his household. Meren sends his son, Kysen, there undercover as his servant. Kysen had a difficult childhood before Meren adopted him: Kysen’s biological father beat him and finally sold him into slavery. And he and his family live and work in the tomb-makers village so Kysen has to both hunt a murderer and confront his family.

This is quite an impressive first novel and has character development, historical detail, and a mystery. Meren is a complex character: Tuthankhamun’s father tried to convert him forcibly to the cult of the one god and Meren still bears the scars from that, both mental and physical. Yet he’s a loving father to his three daughters and adopted son, and also a father figure to the young Pharaoh.

Kysen is also a scarred character. In addition to his difficult childhood he has a barely civil relationship with his former wife. He also raises their son. Yet he enjoys his work, at least when it doesn’t involve confronting his biological family.

The book is fast-paced but doesn’t feel rushed. Robinson’s style is quite sparse; she doesn’t much describe or explain things. However, I got the impression that she knows the culture very well and the characters feel very historical to me.

Booking Through Thursday

Quick! It’s an emergency! You just got an urgent call about a family emergency and had to rush to the airport with barely time to grab your wallet and your passport. But now, you’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read. What do you do??

And, no, you did NOT have time to grab your bookbag, or the book next to your bed. You were… grocery shopping when you got the call and have nothing with you but your wallet and your passport (which you fortuitously brought with you in case they asked for ID in the ethnic food aisle). This is hypothetical, remember…

Well, even if I were grocery shopping (or rather especially when I’m shopping to fight off the boredom) I have with me either a portable CD-player or casetteplayer depending on which kind of audio book I’m listening to. However, it’s perfectly possible that I’ve listened through that CD or cassette and forgotten to change it.

However, I’m a worrier. So, I’m most likely to either sit and worry or pace and worry. I can’t really imagine what sort of emergency would require me to jump to a plane and my brother not being in a hospital. (He’s the only close family member living abroad currently.) So, I couldn’t even concentrate on reading in a situation like that.

I’d probably buy some magazines for the plane ride, though. Comics or National Georaphic or History or something like that.

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