Most of this story occurs in two locations. The walled city of Berylon has an agrarian culture and several noble families. The royal standard of each noble house is a medieval zoomorph. The Basilisk boasts the current prince, a bloodthirsty but brilliant despot who has all but wiped out the Griffin house and has subjugated the others.
When the prince of the Basilisk is not composing concerts or otherwise engaging his considerable mind, he's offing his real and imagined enemies with fiendishly cunning methods and devices of his own invention. Although he likes to be called "prince" he is actually an old man. His daughter Luna is much like him, having studied under his tutelage with the understanding that she is his heir among her simple-minded siblings.
The second important location in the story is the northern sea island of Luly, the ancient and awesome school of the bards. Said to be older than the language of humans, the school is carved into the side of a cliff. Luly is reminiscent of Irish mythology's eerie bastion of the Fomorii on Tory Island -- not exactly the kind of place you'd bring the family for a fiddle festival. The songs of the seals, the sea, the birds, and the wind accompany the years of training that go into the making of a bard. Masters who remain at Luly become redolent of the power and magic of the very rock.
The main plot traces the life of Raven Tormalyne, a survivor of the Basilisk's pogrom against the house of the Griffin. As a young child, Raven hides in a fireplace and watches his family and dog get slaughtered and burned. Relatives find him and discreetly send him to Luly after renaming him Caladrius, after a bird whose song is death.
Caladrius slowly represses the horrid memories of his youth as he masters song and poetry. The all-saying harp brings back those memories, so he never masters that instrument. Instead, he takes up the picochet, a peasant instrument that is like a one-stringed viola da gamba. He marries, has a son, and is content to spend his life on Luly.
After Caladrius passes nearly four decades at Luly, a student from far-off Berylon brings fresh dangers and concerns. Caladrius then goes into the mystical hinterlands on a vision quest. His vision informs him of his royal identity and brings him into his full power as a bard. He learns of a certain bone pipe and its song that kills, which allows him to fulfill his destiny as Caladrius-death-bird.
Sworn to avenge his family's murder, Caladrius returns first to Luly, only to find the school destroyed as part of the Basilisk's insane vendetta. Using his bardic skills, he returns to Berylon incognito to match wit and power with the Basilisk. The story plays out with a few good surprises and a number of humorous subplots.
The musical hierarchy is memorably apt. The mystery school at Luly produces bards who seek their fortunes among the land's farms, towns, and royal halls. In the cities, musicians attach to noble houses and form conventional schools that pander to their patrons' haute couture. There is the occasional conventional school's magister who likes to slum it in the taverns and sit in on sessions playing the commoners' music. It is through this musicians' network that Caladrius infiltrates the Basilisk's castle to play his song of death and revenge.
McKillip, a World Fantasy Award winner, writes with a sparse style that evokes great magic with the barest of words. She possesses a fine knowledge of funky musical instruments and the endearing qualities of musicians. Her power is that of place; it defines and motivates her characters. Song for the Basilisk explores how the expression of that power is shaped by the predilections and history of those who wield it.
I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the Celtic or Nordic musical traditions. It's also for readers who like to see the prince get what's coming to him when he messes with the bards.