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Book Review: Swan Song

I meant to read The Stand.

Stephen King’s magnum opus had been on the reading pile for some time, and at 1200 pages, it seemed like the perfect thing for the long and inevitably dull plane ride I was about to take. I added the book to my Amazon cart and was about to proceed to checkout when I got distracted and a series of clicks led me to this book called Swan Song by Robert McCammon. I’d never heard of it, but if the reviews were to be believed, it was something to swear by: a well-imagined post-apocalyptic epic with a terrific cast of characters, clocking in at over 850 pages. One guy compared the writing to that of Richard Matheson.

“Once upon a time, man had a love affair with fire.”
“Once upon a time, man had a love affair with fire.”

I bought Swan Song instead The Stand.

I started reading it on the plane. An hour zipped by and I was nearly a hundred pages in. It was good. Disarmingly good. Some cynical part of me waited for McCammon to run out of steam, or tricks, or whatever the hell he was using to power this magnificent show, but it never happened. The further I read, the better it got, and the more annoyed I’d be at having to stop for other things (like dinner). It was some of the finest escapism I’d ever experienced.

Escapism is a four-letter word to many people, which is regrettable and exasperating in equal measure. I addressed this attitude at some length a few years ago, but for the purposes of this review it should suffice to say I think escapism can be a very good and healthy thing, and that it should be encouraged, particularly where children are concerned. It is a way of better understanding reality. In A Slip of the Keyboard, Terry Pratchett argues that “fantasy should present the familiar in a new light… It’s a way of looking at the here and now, not the there and then.

Fantasy is the Ur-literature, from which everything else sprang – which is why my knuckles go white when toe-sucking literary critics dismiss it as ‘genre trash.’ And, at its best, it is truly escapist. But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience. Too much alleged ‘fantasy’ is just empty sugar, life with the crusts cut off. (p. 100)

Swan Song isn’t fantasy, not in the typical sense of the word, but it gets “the point about escaping” right at just about every turn. McCammon’s world achieves an otherness that is alien yet familiar – a frame over which he stretches a canvas streaked with fairytale hues and flecked with western, sci-fi, horror, allegory, and old-fashioned romance. It’s a story of good and evil, of beauty and hope in the midst of terrible violence, peopled with characters who will haunt your heart long after you’ve moved on to other things.

To go into greater detail would be to spoil the experience, which would make me a terrible person. That’s not a copout, either. It’s just the truth. If I haven’t already convinced you to read Swan Song, I never will. But I hope I have.

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