Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Swan Song / Robert McCammon
Reviewed by Kevin McAllister Monday, 02 August 1999
In the distant future, America is pulverized by a Russian nuclear assault. The surviving characters in McCammon's story consist of a mixed bag of rugged survivalists -- Sister Creep, which roams the unearthed blacktops of New York carrying a bejeweled ring that forecasts the future; Black Frankenstein, which takes shelter in the basement of a gas station in the middle of somewhere far away; and others. Frankenstein's mission is to protect the child Swan, a girl that plants seeds of hope and is the catalyst to recovery across the war-stripped United States.

McCammon's Swan Song is an immense and excruciatingly plotted work. Falling just short of 1,000 pages, this tome often draws comparisons to Stephen King's The Stand. But Swan Song is a more effective take on an apocalyptic world: the villains in Swan Song exist in a time and a place that are more accessible, a dimension that relies less on supernatural elements. The character of Colonel Macklin is a considerable example of McCammon's villainy. Aided by the psychotic presence of the “Shadow Soldier”, Macklin leads an army of soldiers across the colonies and civilizations of recovering America, despoiling lands and wiping out other factions that have risen to rebellion. His inner struggle is chilling. When contemplating whether or not to admit more people in his survivalist compound, Macklin battles the Shadow Soldier in a moment of compelling tension: “The Shadow Soldier's whisper was like the hiss of a fuse on dynamite. 'Think of the food! More mouths, less food!”'

The Shadow Soldier is one of the most convincing villains in the horror genre, simply because of his link to Colonel Macklin. He is far more profound than a Stephen King ghost bent on terrorizing someone; this entity stems from Macklin's own haunted psyche.

The story hinges on the rise of Macklin's army set against the pursuit of hope by the novel's main characters. The Child Swan sews seeds at each town that she and Black Frankenstein (Josh) pass through on their way to their encounter with Sister Creep. Swan bursts with hope so magnificently that the cornstalks sprout from the ground inexplicably. Her miraculous aura is augmented when she comes in the possession of the bejeweled ring -- she dishes out hope in an otherworldly fashion, lessening the buildup of darkness in the novel. Her powers ultimately eradicate Macklin's army, bringing a sense of progress to the colonies of an earth stripped of everything it resembles.

McCammon's most notable achievement in Swan Song is not this repertoire of hope. It's his ability to reveal the animal beneath -- the animal determined to survive at all costs.

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