Swan Song by Robert McCammon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Post-apocalyptic, Horror, Dark Fantasy
Pages: 929 pages (Kindle edition)
Published: 1st June 1987
Once upon a time, a man decided to read Robert McCammon’s book. It became one of the best decisions he has ever made.
“I used to be an optimist, a long time ago. I used to believe in miracles. But do you know what happened? I got older. And the world got meaner.”
I did not start my journey reading McCammon’s books here. My first time reading McCammon’s book was four years ago, and it was a book depicting a coming-of-age story of a Boy’s Life in Zephyr, Alabama. Reading that book felt like finding a gold mine to harvest. I did not look for it; it called me to read it suddenly. And somehow, Boy’s Life became one of my favorite books. Ever. If you know my reading taste, you will most likely know that my favorite genres to read are epic fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. I rarely venture outside these three genres. Not because I avoid other genres, but mostly because I still have SO MANY books I want to read in my three favorite genres. But I like to occasionally read outside of my comfort zone. That usually leads me to read literary fiction or horror novels. I will argue that, sometimes, horror can be categorized as fantasy as well, and I think Swan Song has some elements that belong in the fantasy genre due to some of its emphasis on supernatural and magical elements. But anyway, if you have heard the title Swan Song, you might have heard it is often compared or judged against The Stand by Stephen King, another super popular and highly praised post-apocalyptic fiction. And where do I stand on my judgment? I think The Stand is great, Swan Song is vastly superior. So this isn’t just a review of Swan Song, but also a comparison of my experience reading The Stand and Swan Song for the first time, and why at the end of the day I think the latter is better.
“How many could possibly be still alive in that holocaust, he wondered. No. A better question was: How many would want to be alive? Because in his briefings and research on nuclear warfare, one thing was very clear to him: The hundreds of millions who perished in the first few hours would be the lucky ones. It was the survivors who would endure a thousand forms of damnation.”
Swan Song is arguably Robert McCammon’s most famous book. Similar to The Stand, it is one of the most highly-praised post-apocalyptic classics, and I will contribute my resounding praises to it. Stephen King did a superb job in showing the terrifying effects of a deadly plague that almost annihilated the entire USA in The Stand. Swan Song did not revolve around a plague. Instead, McCammon terrifically displayed the devastating results of World War III, or in other words, nuclear war. As you can guess, America, as it was, is gone forever, and every surviving citizen has to go beyond their utmost best to survive the aftermath of this calamity in a brutal wasteland born of rage, fear, radiations, monstrous creatures, and marauding armies. This is probably not a unique premise for a novel, especially not in 2022, but remember, this book was first published in 1987, and McCammon’s execution of the story instantly hooked me. Swan Song truly stand out and deserves its classic status. I am serious about this. From how the crimson tornado of fire advanced and filled the sky, blue streaks of lightning lanced through the clouds, tons of blackened earth gouged, and a million dreams of humanity shattered hypnotized my mind-vision, I knew from the beginning through the way it is written that I was in the presence of a special book.
“Thinking about how many millions might be lying dead out there warped Josh’s mind, like trying to figure out how big the universe was, or how many billions of stars winked in the skies. But right now there was just this little girl, sobbing in his arms, and she could never see the world in the same way as before. No matter what happened to them she would forever be marked by this moment—and Josh knew he would as well.”
It is bloody incredible. McCammon tells a story filled with themes I’ve read about countless times, but the deliverance was nothing short of outstanding. Swan Song can get pretty bleak, violent, and depressing. There’s no doubt about that. Horrible actions were undoubtedly accomplished, and one among many things in the book, let’s not even get started on how creepy Job’s Mask is. I did not know anything about this book entering into it, except that it is a post-apocalyptic novel, and I was surprised (in a good way) by some of the events and descriptions in the book. In its horror aspect, I think the description of Job’s Mask is one of the creepiest and most unnerving imagery I’ve ever read. However, it would be a huge mistake to say Swan Song was utterly full of darkness.
“God A’mighty, what’s the point of livin’ if you don’t fight for what you hold dear?”
One of the most dominant themes of Swan Song is to find and brighten that tiny light of hope in the forced immersion of ruinous landscape and evil. The definition of a swan song in our world is a metaphorical phrase for the final gesture, effort, or performance given before death or retirement. And it fits this book. In this story of good versus evil (just like The Stand) or defiance against malevolent force, through the ensemble cast of characters, McCammon explored the meaning of a man letting the real beast within taking control of themselves. But more importantly, McCammon also examined the importance of virtue in the presence of despair and destruction. McCammon achieved this by using his characters, prose, and multiple plot device, and I think everything was done brilliantly.
“Everybody’s got two faces, child—the outside face and the inside face. The outside face is how the world sees you, but the inside face is what you really look like. It’s your true face, and if it was flipped to the outside you’d show the world what kind of person you are.”
I thoroughly loved McCammon’s prose. I already voiced this when I read Boy’s Life, and even though Swan Song is done in a different tone and narration style to Boy’s Life, it was once again, excellent. Here’s the thing. McCammon employed a third-person omniscient narration style here; this is something common in novels published in the 80s and early 90s. It is also, statistically, one of my pet peeves, and why books published pre-1990 tend to not work with me. I often find third-person omniscient narration or head-hopping jarring and distracting to my immersion and investment in the story and characters. In one paragraph, I read the story from one character’s thoughts, and in the next one, I have to read the story from another character’s perspective. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but personally, having this repeated throughout the book USUALLY ends up annoying me. But that is not the case with Swan Song. I was incredibly invested in all the main characters. Protagonists or antagonists, the narrative always felt engaging and intimate. McCammon nailed the voice of every single character so distinctly. I never felt distracted; skillful focus and care were put toward the characterizations, character relationship, and their respective development.
“Swan wanted to know more about everything—to learn to read better, if books could be found; to ask questions and learn to listen; to learn to think and reason things out. But she never wanted to grow up all the way, because she feared the grown-up world; it was a bully with a fat stomach and a mean mouth who stomped on gardens before they had a chance to grow.”
Every character has a crucial role in Swan Song. Swan, Josh, Sister, Paul, Mule, Killer, Robin, and the despicable Roland and Macklin. Nothing felt wasted on the tome. If I discuss the magnificence of each character in this review, we will spend all day talking about this book. Instead, I will say this. If I’m forced to choose favorites, Swan, Josh, and Sister were my favorite characters in the book. Even more so for Swan and Josh because this duo embodied some of my favorite tropes to their maximum effect: found family and badass and child duo. How this duo endured, persevered, fought, and cared for each other in the apocalypse was inspirational. And you know what, amazing characterizations is also one of the main things that made The Stand by Stephen King—mostly—so damn good. What is it that made Swan Song better than The Stand for me, then? Well, at 303,000 words, which is shorter than The Stand by more or less 160,000 words, and I know this might enrage some of Stephen King’s fans, Swan Song is much more worthwhile and ultimately more satisfying and rewarding to me.
“She knew also that he’d almost taken the apple, but at the last second his unthinking rage and pride had won. And she’d seen that he hated her and hated himself for wanting to take a step beyond what he was; but he’d been afraid of her, too, and as she’d watched him stagger away Swan had realized that forgiveness crippled evil, drew the poison from it like lancing a boil.”
I will say straight out say this as simple as possible. I think The Stand has one of the most disappointing and anti-climactic ending sequences I’ve ever read. I just cannot believe, after reading through 400,000 words and more than 1,000 pages long, after all the awesome build-up and development, the final confrontation itself started and ended so instantaneously. It left a sour taste in my mouth, and I found this lack of intense action scenes quite common in older novels. Again, there’s nothing wrong with shorter battle or confrontation scenes. But I, as a reader, especially when I’m reading an epic scale novel (whatever the genre is), I’m the type of reader who prefers a long pulse-pounding set of action/climax sequences. And Swan Song, despite being published in 1987, delivered that for me. I read the final—more or less—200 pages of Swan Song in one sitting. Believe me when I say, with how busy I am now in my life, compelling me to read 200 pages in one sitting is close to impossible. But all the meticulous build-up and crescendo toward the epic convergence resulted in unforgettably explosive, breathtaking, and emotional final pages. Sleeping hours were happily sacrificed as I greeted the dawn of a new day after devouring such a gratifying reading experience.
“Finding someone you loved, and someone who loved you, was half the battle.”
Swan Song is one of the best post-apocalyptic stories I’ve read, and it is also one of the best standalone novels of all time. It is dark, violent, engaging, filled with profound hope and beauty, and extremely worthwhile. Swan Song has been called a classic for decades, and I think it rightfully earned its legendary status. Out of McCammon’s long bibliography of books, I’ve read only Boy’s Life and Swan Song, and both of them are included in my list of favorite books and standalone novels of all time. That’s two for two. I already feel at ease calling Robert McCammon one of my favorite authors. One more favorite book from him, and he will certainly be on my list of favorite authors of all time. I still have so many books by McCammon to read, and now I am struck with a dilemma. What is next? Well, after doing research and hearing many great things, I think my next venture with McCammon’s books will not be a standalone, but it will be a series. The series is named Matthew Corbett. I cannot predict when I will read the series yet, as it depends on my reading mood, but I heard there is only one book left in the series anyway. So it is likely, I will begin my journey in reading Matthew Corbett when I hear some news regarding the approximate or final publication date of the last volume in the Matthew Corbett series. If I can wait that long. But for now, for Boy’s Life and Swan Song that I absolutely loved, let me end this review by saying thank you so much, Robert McCammon. Bravo, and thank you so much for writing these books.
“Even the most worthless thing in the world can be beautiful… it just takes the right touch.”
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