I’m going to get this point out front and attempt to leave it here for the rest of the review: Robert McCammon’s “Swan Song” draws a lot of comparisons to Stephen King’s “The Stand,” and readers are right in doing so. These parallels shouldn’t make readers shun this novel or judge it based off “The Stand” though. “Swan Song” is a very different tale with similar, almost mirrored ideas and themes, but I mean come on… it’s a post-apocalyptic story… they all share something. I also think it is criminally underappreciated. I had never heard of it until around November.
“Swan Song” is a 900-plus page thrill-ride about the survivors of a nuclear holocaust brought on when the conflict between the United States and Russia finally hit a tipping point. McCammon introduces us to many characters before the nukes start falling.
We meet Sister Creep, a homeless woman; Josh aka Black Frankenstein, a former professional football player turned wrestler; Swan, a little girl with the very special ability to grow plants; Roland Croninger, a deranged 13-year old boy; Colonel James Macklin, a former Vietnam War vet; The Man With The Scarlet Eye, a supernatural being and very Flagg-esque character; and many other characters along the way, but these are the center pieces.
“One step. One step and then the next gets you where you’re going.”
Sister and Josh ended up taking home the trophy for best characters. Roland and Macklin were great too, but it felt like McCammon stopped developing Roland like he could of halfway through the book. Macklin’s reliance on the Shadow Soldier was evident of his weak mental status throughout. The Man With The Scarlet Eye was pretty stupid in my opinion. He brought in an overly supernatural element the story didn’t really need. Eliminating him completely wouldn’t have hurt my feelings at all. Swan was a great character too, and her little ability ended up being massively important.
I will insert the spoiler blocker here. If you are worried about ruining events, then scroll to the “End Spoilers” heading to see my rating. Then go to the store, find this book, and read it!
In the first half of the novel, McCammon develops all these main characters and adds in important minor characters like the psychopath Alvin, psychic Leona, and mountain man Paul. We see the characters struggle to survive and seek other survivors.
Sister Creep’s escape from the fiery inferno of destruction in the New York Sewers and then trek through the Holland Tunnel were so intense and absolutely terrifying. Before leaving New York, Sister finds a glowing glass crown that shows her visions of happiness. During Sister’s time in New York we get some of her heartbreaking back story… yeah, I cried.
“Even the most worthless thing in the world can be beautiful, it just takes the right touch.”
Josh and Swan’s time in a Kansas fallout shelter and then travel together is heartwarming but sad as well. The duo meet Leona and check out a shopping center in Matheson where they are introduced to Lord Alvin. Josh is put through a gauntlet. This shopping center scene is easily one of my favorites of the entire novel. Its so wild. They then meet former clown, Rusty.
Macklin and Roland met in a government-built fallout shelter called Earth House underneath Blue Dome Mountain in Idaho. The shelter collapses when the nukes fall. Roland helped Macklin free himself from a rock that had crushed his hand (think about that for a second). The duo escape Earth House. This is another highlight of the entire novel. Holding my breath, cringing, heart racing… it was intense to say the least.
We only have a couple run-ins with The Man With The Scarlet Eye in the first half of the novel, and honestly he was totally forgettable. His best scene was a mini-showdown with Sister where he was impersonating a priest. Other than that, he was pretty pointless and non-existent.
McCammon’s pace in this first half was pedal-to-the-metal. I loved it and cruised through it. The second half, however, takes place after a seven-year time jump, and it is much slower in parts. Overall McCammon kept a very quick and easy pace, but the second half had a lot more stand still with the characters and much less development.
“Sometimes the imagination could be a useful place to hide when the going got rough.”
In the seven-year jump, nuclear winter has set in and Sister, Josh, Swan, Roland, and Macklin have all developed growths on their faces that survivors refer to as Job’s Masks. Roland and Macklin hide theirs and mobilize an army, the Army of Excellence, to purge the land of all people with these imperfections and eventually combat the Russians.
I love the image McCammon wrote out for Roland’s attempt to cover the Job’s Mask; it was very reminiscent of HG Wells’ “Invisible Man.” The scenes with this duo and their army are very similar to something out of “Mad Max.” Lord Alvin, the psychopath from Matheson, returns to the novel and joins their army.
Sister and Paul continue to travel, using the visions from the crown to guide them, and eventually meet a young man named Robin. The trio travel to Mary’s Rest where they meet Josh and Swan. Robin and Swan develop a love interest, creating some cute and embarrassing “teenage love” scenes.
Before Sister, Robin and Paul get there though, Josh, Rusty and Swan have a run-in with The Man With The Scarlet Eye. He kills Rusty who sacrificed himself to save Swan and runs away before he can be caught. When Sister and Paul get to Mary’s rest, the people are starting to discover Swan’s ability. She has instilled hope in the towns people, and everyone bands together to rebuild the town.
“A man had a certain look in his eyes when he was pushed against the wall and stripped of his humanity; his entire face changed, as if it was a mask cracking open to show the face of the real beast within.”
All these travel scenes just made me feel cold due to McCammons excellent descriptions of the Nuclear Winter. The claustrophobia associated with the Job’s Masks slowly working their way over the entirety of the characters faces really got to me at times. Once the Masks fall off, the characters “true face” is shown. Sister, Josh, and Swan are all beautiful and have lost any imperfections they had.
Meanwhile, Roland and Macklin’s faces have turned monstrous. Macklin’s reminds me of a cross between “Captain America’s” Red Skull and something from “Hellraiser.” Another minor fault of this novel is the weak description of Roland’s “true face.” I still feel like I can’t picture it well.
The Man With The Scarlet Eye attempts to harm Swan once more, but Swan, offering him an apple in an act of forgiveness, breaks his sanity. This scene is one huge metaphor and obviously symbolic, but I still didn’t love it. The only good that came from it, for me, was watching The Man With The Scarlet Eye lose his mind and leave town to find help.
“Forgiveness crippled evil, drew the poison from it like a lanced boil.”
He found help, in the form of the continually growing Army of Excellence where he convinced Roland and Macklin to attack Mary’s Rest. A massive battle ensues between the sparsely armed citizens of Mary’s Rest and the absurdly weaponized Army of Excellence. Another highlight of the novel for me.
Josh, Robin, Sister, and Swan are captured. The Army of Excellence take them to West Virginia where there is a rumor of “God on the mountain.” “God” turns out to be the President and he has initiated the launch of TALONS: a device that will release a barrage of nukes at the Earth’s poles, rotating the planet, melting the ice caps and destroying all life; ensuring a fresh start.
The Man With The Scarlett Eye is essentially in charge at this point and all he wants is death and chaos. There is a heart-pounding final showdown in the bunker under the mountain. The Man With The Scarlet Eye disappears in a flash of lightning (lame) and the humans are left fighting each other. In the throes of battle, Macklin dies and before Roland dies, he mortally wounds Sister. Swan, Josh, and Robin carry Sister out of the bunker after disarming TALONS.
“God A’Mighty, what’s the point of livin’ if you don’t fight for what you hold dear?”
In the closing events, we see the sky begin to clear, effectively ending the nuclear winter. Sister dies, but not in vain. Swan and Robin represent hope and the future of mankind. Like a lot of massive apocalyptic novels, “Swan Song” is no different in the “somewhat rushed and seemingly ineffective ending” category.
End of the spoilers
In the end, I really enjoyed this novel, it probably sits in my top 10 or 15 all-time. It’s a fast, fantastic read that immerses readers from page 1. I couldn’t put it down. I wish The Man With The Scarlet Eye would have been less of a force and McCammon had instead replaced him with a more prominent Roland.
I’m sorry this review was so long, but it’s a massive book with a lot going on. Overall, I absolutely loved it and I highly recommend everyone check it out, you’ll cruise through it and you’ll love it, I promise. This book makes me want to check out some more McCammon. “Swan Song” would get a perfect rating from me if not for a few things that I just can’t get past, so instead I give it a: