First published in 1987, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song passes the test of time with flying colors. The story starts in a cold-war world of East and West, politicians driven to the brink by misunderstanding and the world falling over the edge of nuclear disaster. But that’s just the beginning. Post-holocaust there’s a powerfully depicted dystopia, as real and scary as any imagined in more modern tales. The monsters may not be vampires and werewolves but they’re every bit as disturbing. Changing scenes and points of view are handled with nice timing, clues reappearing subtly and mysteries drawn lightly towards a satisfying conclusion. Characters live and die as the setting decrees while the plot flows naturally, mystically guided perhaps but very convincingly earth-bound.
A young girl holds the key to humanity’s future in this bleak world, but she grows convincingly older without knowing or reveling in her powers—no rabbits or miracles pulled out of hats in this tale. Swan’s guardians have only half-remembered messages and mystical dreams to guide them, and become more real to the reader because of their lack of confidence. Danger and evil bring surprising strengths to light in wounded protagonists, while others, equally wounded, spiral out of control—man’s greatest enemy being his own desires perhaps.
The hero’s journey is fractured and hard with very real dangers, disasters and dashed hopes, and a goal that remains clouded under poisoned skies. This is a long book—think Stephen King—with natural breaks between sections, making it easy to put down but hard to resist picking straight up again. While we may not be so scared of nuclear war as we once were, that doesn’t seem to alter the strength of this tale, and it’s interesting, coming fresh to it today, to see how its archetypes have woven their way through more recent novels. I’m really glad I got the chance to read this, and I highly recommend it to any fans of Stephen King, dystopias, or heroic journeys.
Disclosure: My son recommended this book to me and loaned me his copy—do I have to give it back?