First published back in June of 1987, US author Robert R McCammon’s epic post-apocalyptic masterpiece ‘Swan Song’ soon became the novel that would be revered by many as the writer’s defining piece of work.  Soon enough, in 1988, the book rightfully won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel.

DLS Synopsis:
After months of tension between the United States of America and Russia, nuclear warfare breaks out after neither of the countries backs down.  The result is an all-out nuclear holocaust, destroying almost the entire population of the two countries and no doubt across the entire world.

Few survivors are left following the devastation and resulting fallout.  In New York City, a homeless and then mentally unstable bag-lady known as Sister Creep survives the horrific blasts.  A small-time black wrestler named Josh Hutchins (aka Black Frankenstein) manages to find shelter from the destruction, with a nine-year-old girl named Sue Wanda (aka Swan).  And deep within the protective confines of a massive underground nuclear bunker, thirteen-year-old Roland Croninger and the legendary Vietnam veteran Colonel James Macklin manage to escape the onslaught, even with the collapse of the bunker’s superstructure from a near direct hit.

As the days pass, these survivors, as well as the many others who managed to somehow escape the massive nuclear Armageddon, claw their way to the surface of this desecrated new landscape in the search of food, water and breathable air.  What greets them is nothing short of hell on earth.

Humanity has turned feral in its desperation for survival.  Power is found from the hording of food, water and weaponry.  Those that have these, lord over the weaker within the ravaged landscapes of America.

Roland Croninger and the Colonel James Macklin travel together, taking what they need from those they come across, killing and plundering as they go.  Upon reaching a small community camped by the Salt Lake in Utah, the two, together with the once prostitute Sheila Fontana, soon overthrow the man who previously ruled over the people there.  Once the position of control had been gained, they begin to form their own army named the Army Of Excellence (AOE).

In Kansas, after joining up with ex-clown Rusty, Josh Hutchins and Swan reach a town called Sullivan where they meet some fellow survivors.  Here Josh reconfirms his belief that Swan is no ordinary girl – for she has the power of life in her.

Meanwhile, Sister Creep (now simply named ‘Sister’ after reawakening from her mental instability) has discovered a strange crown-like hoop made from the conglomeration of melted crystals and precious stones, formed from the scorching heat in the nuclear blasts.  The circular object displays incredible powers, allowing the holder to ‘dreamwalk’ into a different time, understand different languages, and glimpse cryptic and beckoning snippets of Swan’s travels.  Sister knows that she is being drawn to Swan and so embarks on a great journey to find this mysterious girl who she is convinced she must locate.  Together with a small party of survivors, they set off to find the girl named Swan.

But amongst the pain and suffering of humanity, one lone individual is taking delight from this plagued and dying world.  He is a man with many faces, who can transform himself at will into the bodies of those that perish at his hands.  A man with a scarlet eye who wishes nothing more than to further the suffering of mankind and to ultimately wipe humanity from the face of the earth.  But he has seen the magical ring that Sister travels with and is threatened by its existence.  For the ring brings hope, and he cannot tolerate such an emotion.  And as such, he must find and destroy the ring.

But with the power of life in the unknowingly important girl named Swan, a fight between good and evil will play out across this desperate and ravaged new world.  A fight that will see humanity finally on the brink of utter annihilation.  A fight that will see friends and loved ones perish, and put every living sole to the ultimate test.  It all comes down to whose side you fight for.  And what your true face looks like lying behind the flesh and bone that is on show to the world.

After all, one step and then another gets you to where you’re going...

DLS Review:
Epic is certainly the most apt word to use when reviewing ‘Swan Song’.  Its greatest comparison in so many ways is to that of Stephen King’s immense post-apocalyptic novel ‘The Stand’ (1978).  Likewise in length and theme, as well as the utterly ambitious nature of its stripped-down fight between good and evil, the two novels work so well on an equal plain, but at the same time, take on two very separate paths.

‘Swan Song’ captivates the reader from very early on with the sheer wealth of characterisation on offer; guiding these hand-picked individuals through a gripping and heartfelt tale that draws the reader into McCammon’s desperate and horrifying post-apocalyptic world.

The three separate storylines that begin the tale with, each follow their own paths for a large proportion of the novel, each one with its own gripping and adventurous qualities.  Only when the three storylines eventually converge does the whole elaborate picture begin to form.  The end result is powerful and utterly compelling.

Split into two distinct parts (or ‘books’ as the novel names them), the first half of the novel deals with the actual event of the nuclear catastrophe, the time immediately afterwards and the beginnings of survival for those that managed to live past the 17th July.  The second half of the book is set four years later, with Swan now a teenage girl and the beginnings of communities having formed.  But still life has not really progressed, and those that remain are merely clinging on to survival.  Both sections of the book are equally as active and captivating, however the immediacy of the tale is slightly lost with the sudden jump in years, and instead we are left playing catch-up with the events that have since taken place.  In no way is this particularly bad, in fact it spans out the epic nature of the tale even more, which was purely made possible by the splitting of the book in this way.

McCammon utilises a host of characters, each with their own unique personalities and traits that help to drive the plot forwards.  The mysterious and downright eerie nature of ‘the man with the scarlet eye’ (later known as 'Friend') creates a dark undertone to his overpowering presence within the tale.  The swelling evil that is Macklin’s AOE is just as oppressive, especially with the internal viewpoint that the reader is cleverly given.

The novel’s finale and ultimate ending are kept within the proportions of the book – that of being spectacular and truly epic.  McCammon successfully wraps the tale up with the satisfaction of a job well done, creeping in a wistful final goodbye to his loveable characters before signing off and calling it a day. 

This is post-apocalyptic fiction at its finest.  The injection of Clive Barker-esque dark fantasy and imaginative side-steps with the plotline creates a masterpiece of storytelling that casts the ever-ready reader into a new time and place, where it seems the rules of life have warped, and perhaps where almost anything is possible.

This is truly an incredible piece of fiction and an outstanding achievement for this talented horror author.  It’s gripping, heart-warming, sad and inspiring.  The story flows with the ease of the greatest of wordsmiths, whilst its characters play with the reader’s sympathies, forming a close alliance with the reader’s heart.  Its grand nature is as powerful as it is mesmerising.  The sub-stories and intertwining levels of storyline are enthralling.  It never lets up.  And it never once falters from its course to its ultimate finale.  It is well and truly a masterpiece of dark post-apocalyptic fiction.

The novel runs for a total of 956 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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