Title: Swan Song
Author: Robert McCammon
Publisher: Gallery Books
Format: Trade Paperback
I was first introduced to the writing of Robert McCammon a few years ago. His novel, Boy’s Life, came highly recommended . I thoroughly enjoyed the coming-of-age story and have been meaning to pick up another McCammon novel for quite some time.
Swan Song is the second novel by McCammon that I’ve read. It is often compared to Stephen King’s The Stand, both being post-apocalyptic epics that feature survivors in grand battles of good versus evil. Both novels take care to have characters from diverse walks-of-life and feature a supernatural element that provides a path for good to conquer evil. Despite their similarities, Swan Song is far from a derivative of the more popular novel, The Stand.
How could it be? It was published in 1987, three years before King’s tome. [factual error: see comments]
Swan Song takes place in a very near future after the United States and the Soviet Union engage in a devastating nuclear war. Every major city, military base, and even rural areas of the US are destroyed, leaving the country in a radiation-filled nuclear winter.
There are several thousands of survivors (though likely not millions) and there is a mass hoarding of gas and food with the country’s entire infrastructure torn to threads. There is no electricity and many of the survivors begin to die from radiation poisoning. Those left, while not immune to the radiation, have a higher tolerance and some begin to exhibit sores on their faces that grow into a hideous cocoon that becomes known as “Job’s mask.”
A homeless woman named Sister survives the nuclear holocaust and while scavenging for goods, comes across a glass crown (ring) with spikes resembling those on the Statue of Liberty. It illuminates with her touch and she begins to see visions through the power of her artifact.
The girl she sees visions of is named Swan and Sister believes she is the key to the country’s survival. Swan survives the attacks in the company of a large pro wrestler named Josh. Commonly known as “Black Frankenstein,” Josh is a giant, but loving man and is told through a corpse to protect the girl. He travels with Swan across the country to find a new start at life. It doesn’t take Josh long to realize that Swan has very special powers.
There are also those who seek to stop peace — Colonel Macklin, a Viet Nam vet who heads up an army to gain control of the country by force. Roland Croninger serves as his hand, a brilliant young mind that is even more conniving than his maniacal leader. Then there’s Lord Alvin, a crazy, but intelligent villain who later joins forces with Macklin. But the biggest threat to the survivors isn’t any of these men. It’s a man with no name. In fact, he isn’t even a man at all.
I wasn’t certain how I was going to review Swan Song. There is a part of me that was very frustrated with the novel. In The Stand, the survivors are truly immune to the epidemic that strikes the country, but not so with Swan Song. It is snowing in August and several people don’t even have gloves. They are eating the radioactive snow and dying due to the nuclear fallout. Why aren’t people hiding out in silos or multi-level basements like in Hugh Howey’s Wool? Or why aren’t they traveling toward the equator for warmth and to escape the radiation like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? It makes no sense that people would be randomly roaming the country east and west when it is a well-known fact that they are contaminating themselves.
But I put all of that aside, because McCammon has done a magnificent job of creating rich characters that intertwine in wonderful ways. Like Frodo of Lord of the Rings, Sister has an object that she must protect from the hand of evil. Her mission is not to destroy the ring, but to bring it to Swan, who in many ways resembles a messianic character. The spikes on the ring are like a crown of thorns and Swan brings life to the landscape like a root out of dry ground. She is a healer and ultimately the fate of humanity rests on her shoulders.
The biblical imagery runs deep in this novel. It is not a Christian novel, but rather focuses on the age-old theme of good versus evil. Swan, who bears gifts that require responsibility, does not desire to be a leader. Others, such as Macklin and Lord Alvin are maimed (physically and mentally), but covet the highest power. They want to be worshipped like gods.
Swan Song is a great story that builds upon a classic theme. The characters are likable and the story always kept me wanting to read more. Post-apocalyptic fiction has been done many times before, but this is definitely one of the better ones and while somewhat dated, the heart of the story remains timeless.