Book Reviews

Book Review: Swan Song by Robert McCammon – A Stand By Any Other Name is Still as Sweet

I’ve never made any bones about the fact that The Stand by Stephen King is my favorite novel. It’s one I’ve read over and over since I was about twelve. At various times over the years when I’ve discussed the book in groups such as alt.books.stephen-king, one other novel that kept coming up was Robert McCammon’s Swan Song.

Finally, after reading a comment on my review of The Stand, I decided to read Swan Song. Although I don’t know if I agree with the writer who recommended it that this is much better than The Stand, I did enjoy the novel quite a bit.

The comparisons between the two novels are well-founded. Both are in a genre known to fans as “apocalyptic fiction.” There are web pages devoted to this specific type of fiction (or science fiction, depending on your point of view). Both stories involve the wiping out of the majority of the earth’s population and the subsequent battle of good versus evil by the survivors.

That summation, however, is where the similarities end. Where King’s novel has the population wiped out by a superflu epidemic (SARS anyone?), McCammon’s novel is very dated in the Cold War atmosphere of the mid-1980’s. For many people, it’s hard to imagine a world where the United States is not the world’s only super-power.

Set during the time when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had a deep hatred and mistrust for each other, the book begins with a rise in tensions between the two governments. This soon escalates into an all-out nuclear war, destroying most of the planet and killing the majority of the population. Some survive the first wave of strikes, only to die from the fall-out and other after-effects.

If nothing else, I’m now convinced that I would never want to survive a nuclear war. I’d rather be among those killed in the first wave. McCammon’s descriptions of the destruction of the cities and the after-effects on the human population are vivid, gripping, and disturbing. Just reading how the population of wolves begins attacking humans as a food source is disturbing enough, never mind what some of the people have to resort to in order to survive.

Swan Song closely follows three groups of survivors. The first fall in behind a homeless woman known only as Sister. The journey for them begins in New York City which has been hit by not just one, but two missiles. Sister holds a bejeweled piece of glass which has magical powers and is sought by the Scarlet-Eyed Man.

The second group comes out of a complex known as Earth House high in the Idaho mountains. Designed as a time-share for survivalists, it fails in its critical hour, leaving people trapped in the rubble of a decaying mountain, fighting for a limited food supply. Only Colonel Macklin and a crafty boy by the name of Roland manage to free themselves from the rubble.

This is not the first time Colonel Macklin has found himself in a desperate situation. As the title implies, he is a former military man, and former P.O.W. from the Vietnam War. His mental stability is often in question, but he finds his niche leading “The Army of Excellence” in the post-apocalyptic America.

The third group centers around Josh and Swan. Josh is a former pro-wrestler who is in the right place at the right time and manages to save the life of a little girl names Sue Wanda (Swan). Together they traverse what used to be mid-America with a former circus clown, Rusty, acting as entertainers in towns or settlements they encounter.

There is something special inside Swan; something she has felt since she was a young girl. More in tuned with the earth and the ability to feel and sense life in the fields and orchards around her, she possibly holds the key to the continuation of life on this planet in her hands.

McCammon does a wonderful job weaving the tales together, both during and immediately following the nuclear holocaust, and as the three factions draw together many years later. The characters he creates and describes are vivid and I could easily form pictures in my mind. The scenes he describes are also very vivid, but disturbing, especially in the case of the battles the Army of Excellence stages on various settlements and other groups.

Where I felt King almost romanticized what living would be like after just about everyone else left the planet and all the “toys” were around to pick up, McCammon does not do this. It is a cruel, hard world for these people to survive in. There are no great food supplies to be found in supermarkets; no power plants just waiting to be re-started; people cannot just pick up and begin life anew. The ground will not grow food, the water is not pure, and no one is sure of whether or not they will still die from fallout sickness or the general indifference to life that seems present in many of the survivors.

There is one point in the novel where McCammon jumps ahead quite a few years. I would have liked to have read more about what happened to the characters in those lost years, but the novel was over 900 pages already. Something had to be cut, and it was those years that get glossed over. It does seem to be an abrupt shift, but McCammon manages to pick up the story nicely as it builds toward the climax.

Likewise, I also felt that Swan Song is somewhat dated. With the Cold War well behind us and a new generation growing up not remembering what it was like to live on an earth with two opposing super-powers, it has more the feel of historical fiction or alternate history at times.

Still, I found it to be a page-turner, and didn’t want to put it down near the end. If you enjoyed The Stand I would highly recommend this book as well. I still prefer the King novel, but Swan Song is also an excellent read. Just don’t try to read them back to back. They are both very long books, but the novels are too similar and too long to enjoy if they were read close together.

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