Swan Song Review
First, a quick synopsis that contains no real spoilers.
Swan Song was gifted to me about twenty years ago by a close friend who said, “Read this. It’s right up your alley.” Too foolish to heed my friend’s advice, though she knew well my love for science fiction, fantasy, horror and all things supernatural, this brilliant book rode the shelf for more than two decades. And I have never kicked myself so much.
This book tied with Stephen King’s Misery to win the Bram Stoker Award in 1987, and that award was much deserved.
Swan Song is a journey into madness, a trek through a nuclear wasteland, a long walk through nightmares with characters both interesting and relatable. As mentioned, Swan Song contains elements of fantasy, sci-fi and horror, but it belongs to the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction and describes the events and aftermath of a nuclear war.
The beginning of the plot is what we would expect for 1980s fiction: nuclear war looms between the United States and the Soviet Union. When the leaders of those superpowers decide to press the button and launch the nukes, the United States is reduced to a barren wasteland withing hours. The land is covered with nuclear snow and crawling with the shattered, burned, deformed remnants of humanity.
Among these survivors are the girl, Swan, who meets her protector, Josh Hutchins; a bag lady called Sister Creep; young man named Roland Croninger who meets and serves a decorated war veteran, Colonel James Macklin; and the mysterious demonic figure known as Doyle Halland, The Man of Many Faces, Friend, and The Man with the Scarlet Eye. These are the characters of focus throughout the novel and each of them in turn meets several others along the way to meeting one another.
Sister Creep has long ago lost her mind and lives now among the other homeless people and bag ladies of New York’s streets. It’s not until the city collapses and she finds a shiny magical ring that she begins to return the sanity of her former self. But just has her madness begins to wane, Sister has a harrowing, terrifying encounter with The Man with the Scarlet Eye; and encounter that sets her on a journey to find some very important people.
Josh meets Swan in a convenience store at the moment the bombs go off, and though there are subtle hints along the way, it will be years before he discovers the reason it so imperative that protects the child, as a dead man commanded him too. Swan holds within her the “power of life”, though she doesn’t know it.
Roland Croninger is a young man when we meet him. He loves computer games and imagines himself as a “King’s Knight.” When his parents take him to a secure underground military shelter called Earth House, no one suspects that this weekend spent in the time share bomb shelter will be the days when the bombs fall to earth. Once things go sideways and begin to fall apart, Roland finds himself lost in the dark, searching for his parents, or for someone to take their place and take him under wing. When he finds Colonel Macklin trapped and in need of aid, Roland immediately accepts the veteran as a surrogate.
Thus begins the long, arduous journeys of our main characters through a wasteland of savagery.
Now, the review.
Robert McCammon’s writing in this book is outstanding. I was engaged through the entire thing. It takes little time to fall in love with some characters or grow to loathe others. The war waged between good and evil in these pages feels so real; not forced. Those who are good are not so innately but make tough choices to try to maintain their humanity and do what they believe is right. They behave as unselfishly as possible given the circumstances but are still human, with all the flavors of weakness that includes. The bad people, the evil, are not mere caricatures. They have agendas and desires, inner voices that lead them subtly and slowly down a hellish path. Here, we don’t have evil for evil’s sake simply to give the good opposition; we find broken people too weak to overcome their evil with goodness, too miserable and frightened to resist their selfishness and personal goals.
The inclusion of wildlife and how the creatures that remain adept to nuclear winter is amazing. McCammon does a wonderful, masterful job of illustrating the sources of food left for survivors in a nuclear fallout, as well as the weather conditions and showing what mutations may be possible (or perhaps probable). There are beasts with additional heads and limbs, people with bald, burn-scarred heads, and radioactive snow that can used as a water source but not without consequences and side effects.
There is mutation/deformity called Job’s Mask that I will not spoil here. It is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered is a story and it added a layer of excellence to an already masterful story.
The descriptions and narration are wonderful. I will be reading more McCammon and lamenting that I have waited so long to discover him.
There are many words to describe how such a book impacts a reader, or how this book could be described. I could say it is magnificent, splendid, spectacular, monumental, first-rate, skillful, and impressive; but none of those quite get me to where I’m heading.
Swan Song is a grand epic, a sweeping adventure set among science fiction ideas, fantastical concepts and humane themes. I have never experienced anything quite like it. Though the word does not quite hit the mark, I will finish here by saying I am truly impressed.