Swan Song


Robert R. McCammon's Swan Song is often compared to Stephen King's The Stand. And though both novels bear similarities, they're also quite different in several ways. They are both post-apocalyptic reads with huge page counts, though this particular apocalypse is nuclear in nature instead of viral.

Both books recount the tales of those unlucky souls struggling to survive in a world where civilization has been brought on the brink of extinction. Both novels also feature a devil-figure antagonist bent on destroying what little is left of mankind. As a matter of course, factions will be created and a good vs evil showdown will be the culmination of each title.

And yet, though their premises are similar, Swan Song and The Stand have very little in common as far as their storylines are concerned. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but I felt that The Stand has aged a lot better than McCammon's bestseller.

Here's the blurb:

Swan is a nine-year-old Idaho girl following her struggling mother from one trailer park to the next when she receives visions of doom—something far wider than the narrow scope of her own beleaguered life. In a blinding flash, nuclear bombs annihilate civilization, leaving only a few buried survivors to crawl onto a scorched landscape that was once America.

In Manhattan, a homeless woman stumbles from the sewers, guided by the prophecies of a mysterious amulet, and pursued by something wicked; on Idaho’s Blue Dome Mountain, an orphaned boy falls under the influence of depraved survivalists and discovers the value of a killer instinct; and amid the devastating dust storms on the Great Plains of Nebraska, Swan forms a heart-and-soul bond with an unlikely new companion. Soon they will cross paths. But only Swan knows that they must endure more than just a trek across an irradiated country of mutated animals, starvation, madmen, and wasteland warriors.

Swan’s visions tell of a coming malevolent force. It’s a shape-shifting embodiment of the apocalypse, and of all that is evil and despairing. And it’s hell-bent on destroying the last hope of goodness and purity in the world. Swan is that hope. Now, she must fight not only for her own survival, but for that of all mankind.

A winner of the Bram Stoker Award and a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, Swan Song has become a modern classic, called “a chilling vision that keeps you turning pages to the shocking end” by John Saul and “a long, satisfying look at hell and salvation” by Publishers Weekly.

Robert R. McCammon's Swan Song was published in 1987 and is a product of the Cold War. The threat of nuclear warfare between the USA and the USSR was a constant premise in various works of fiction, movies, games, etc, throughout the 70s and the 80s. The world's socio-political landscape has changed a lot since then, and I'm not sure if someone who didn't live through those times will get as much out of Swan Song as someone who did. As mentioned, this novel hasn't aged as well as Stephen King's classic and it might appeal less to a younger crowd for whom the Cold War is just something they read about in their history class back in high school.

Although there are quite a few fantasy elements that allow McCammon to push the envelope, there are a couple of plot holes as well, mainly how most of the protagonists are not much affected by radiations and fallout. Still, these are minor nitpicking issues that don't take anything away from the overall reading experience.

Characterization is where the author truly shines, especially where the forces of good are concerned. A more likable yet disparate trio you can never hope to find. Swan is a little girl who has the power to make plants grow. Running away with her mom from an abusive boyfriend when the bombs start to fall, little does she know what destiny holds in store for her. Josh Hutchins, a down-on-his-luck professional wrestler on his way to his next gig, will be given the task of keeping the child safe. And Sister, a crazy homeless woman from NYC, who has found a gorgeous glass ring filled with jewels which seems to possess magical powers. Wandering across the country and looking for fellow survivors, they will cross paths with the Army of Excellence. Sadly, the forces of evil are not as well-drawn. Though they started off as more genuine protagonists, Colonel Macklin, a deranged Vietnam war veteran, and Roland Croninger, a teenage RPG enthusiast, grow into more caricaturesque characters.

Weighing in at more than 900 pages, Swan Song is a doorstopper of a novel. As such, it does indeed suffer from occasional pacing issues. Some portions drag more than others, and I have a feeling that certain scenes could have been removed completely without the book losing much. Having said that, the author keeps the tale moving at a relatively good clip and those rough areas are few and far between for the most part.

Even if it hasn't aged as well as I would have hoped and even if it's not exactly the classic that King's The Stand is, Robert R. McCammon's Swan Song remains one of the very best post-apocalyptic novels ever written. Compelling, vast in scope, and featuring an unforgettable trio of protagonists, I commend this one to your attention.

Highly recommended.

The final verdict: 8/10

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