Pocket Books, 1987, 956 pages
In a wasteland born of rage and fear, populated by monstrous creatures and marauding armies, earth's last survivors have been drawn into the final battle between good and evil, that will decide the fate of humanity: Sister, who discovers a strange and transformative glass artifact in the destroyed Manhattan streets; Joshua Hutchins, the pro wrestler who takes refuge from the nuclear fallout at a Nebraska gas station; and Swan, a young girl possessing special powers, who travels alongside Josh to a Missouri town where healing and recovery can begin with Swan's gifts. But the ancient force behind earth's devastation is scouring the walking wounded for recruits for its relentless army, beginning with Swan herself.
A big apocalyptic thriller is perfect summer reading. I picked up Robert McCammon's Swan Song because everyone compares it to Stephen King's The Stand, which is one of my favorite books.
So, nowadays it's fashionable to claim any book that resembles another one is "ripping off" the original one. The Hunger Games has been accused of ripping off Battle Royale. Harry Potter is ripping off The Books of Magic (and just about every other book in history about magic and wizards, depending on who you ask). Dracula is ripping off Twilight. (No, I didn't get those reversed. I read a review that said this. Shoot me now.)
In almost every case, there is no "ripping off." There are common story elements, there are authors inspired by similar ideas and inspirations. "Drawing from the same well," as Neil Gaiman said when people accused Harry Potter of being a rip-off of Timothy Hunter.
I believe that about Swan Song, but still, the similarities are quite remarkable. Both books are great big multi-POV epics chronicling the survivors of an apocalypse as they journey across North America in search of... something that will end the old world and begin the new one. Both books are laden with virginal MacGuffin Girls to inspire manly protectiveness in a rather flat love story, a Magical Negro whose purpose is to make sure all the white people survive, an enigmatic supernatural evil dude who appears out of nowhere to lead the bad guys, implications of a never-specified Higher Power directing things, a final confrontation involving sacrifices among the good guys and the bad guys being undone by the fact that half of them are batshit crazy, and a nuclear deux ex machina ending.
I mean, the theme, tone, and characters are really, really similar. If nothing else did it, The Man With the Scarlet Eye is so much like Randall Flagg that I would almost be convinced that Robert McCammon just decided to rewrite The Stand using a nuclear war instead of a superflu as the cause of the apocalypse. And yet, it's in all the particulars that they differ enough that I also believe Robert McCammon just happened to write a book that is superficially similar in a lot of ways. I mean, if you sit down and say "I want to write a post-holocaust epic whose major theme is the battle between good and evil," it would be pretty hard not to wind up being similar to The Stand and Swan Song.
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
Swan Song begins with a nuclear war. We see the President in Air Force One, and the war starts the way we always feared it would, with the Russians and the Americans playing nuclear chicken and neither one being willing to back down. (Swan Song was written in 1987, when a nuclear war with the USSR still seemed entirely likely in our lifetime.)
Then, just like in The Stand, we are introduced to our cast of protagonists as they go through their final days before the missiles launch.
Sister Creep is a homeless bag lady in New York City. Initially she appears to be schizophrenic and delusional, but it turns out she is suffering shock over a tragedy she never got over, and after Manhattan gets turned to rubble (an event she survives in the first of many improbable cinematic feats), she "snaps out of it" and turns into the story's designated bad-ass. She also finds a mysterious glowing circle of glass embedded with precious gems, something somehow created in the nuclear fires. This thing turns out to have magical powers, the first of many improbable and never-explained-at-all supernatural elements that exist purely to make things happen that the author couldn't manage using mundane events.
Josh Hutchins is the Magical Negro, a wrestler with the stage-name "Black Frankenstein" (1987, remember), described over and over throughout the book as "the black giant." He's not really "magical" in the sense of having supernatural powers, he's just big and strong and scary, and he gets charged with protecting the pretty white MacGuffin Girl.
Sue Wanda Prescott, or "Swan," is nine years old when the book begins. She has a mother who's been bouncing from one bad trailer park boyfriend to another. They and Josh happen to be at the same service station next to a Nebraska cornfield and actually see the nuclear missiles launching from their silos. Swan has a supernatural ability to make plants grow, and after the apocalypse brings about a nuclear winter, she becomes the source of all hope for mankind. Ayup.
The bad guys include Colonel Macklin, a slightly unhinged Vietnam vet and former POW, who of course becomes more unhinged as he forms the Army of Excellence in the ruins of America. Roland Croninger is your basic sociopathic computer geek, a thirteen-year-old nerd when the bombs fall while he and his parents are in Macklin's time-share survivalist compound. He becomes Macklin's right-hand man, fancying himself "the King's Knight" in his own fantasy world.
And of course there is the Man With the Scarlet Eye, who sometimes acts like a fallible, petulant human being and sometimes like the incarnation of evil.
The story is long, multi-threaded, and very cinematic in places. McCammon is not as good a writer as Stephen King; King has a better feel for people and is better at invoking emotion without the device of cheap melodrama. On the other hand, McCammon's plotting is, if not always believable, much more action-packed and planned out. King is notoriously bad at endings, and The Stand's final act was a typical King pull-a-conclusion-out-of-your-ass one. Swan Song has a finale worthy of Hollywood, but he actually set it up better than King did.
Swan Song is very much a fantasy novel. Substitute a made-up fantasy world for North America and call the apocalypse something other than a nuclear war, and it's not much different than your basic good-vs-evil hike-through-the-wilderness-encountering-v
There are a lot of action scenes and a big cast of characters, and every chapter is interesting. McCammon is also superior to King in that he doesn't go off on as many tangents; Swan Song is nearly a thousand pages, but it's all interrelated story, and not much is padding.
This isn't great literature, and I still consider The Stand the superior novel. But if you like The Stand, you will almost certainly like Swan Song. It's something to read when you want a big-ass page-turner that is kind of brainless and shameless in its troping. Like The Stand, it's a little dated now, and it's less than salutary on the racial and gender front, but if you can suspend a lot of disbelief and some of your more refined sensibilities, it's a good candidate for one of my favorite "guilty pleasures."
Verdict: You will love this book exactly as much as you love great big cheesy epic doorstoppers. Swan Song is really a fantasy novel disguised as a post-apocalyptic thriller. Comparisons to Stephen King's The Stand are inevitable, but don't detract from this book, which stands on its own just fine for what it is.
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