In SWAN SONG Robert McCammon takes us down a path similar to the one Stephen King follows in The Stand. Of course, there are big differences that make reading both books worthwhile. For one thing the disasters that cause the post apocalyptic scenarios are far different with widely divergent consequences. King’s apocalypse is caused by chemical warfare experiments gone wrong. McCammon’s is the result of nuclear warfare. The Stand gives us a nice clean (once you get rid of all the dead bodies) world where everything you need is there for the taking. McCammon’s world is a harsh endless winter that is almost impossible to survive. McCammon’s exceptional powers of description really bring this desolate landscape to life. You feel the cold. You know what it’s like to huddle in the darkness around a campfire that can never really warm you. There just isn’t enough clean anythingfor you to get yourself really clean, and you have a feeling that it will be that way for the rest of your life.
The devices that McCammon comes up with in Swan Song are inventive and strong: the glass ring that Sister guards with her life and uses to see into the future, Swan’s power to heal dead trees by merely touching them, the transformative growths that form on some people’s faces, the final password to deactivate the computers, Colonel Macklen’s hand! This is great stuff, employed beautifully to tell a compelling story.
What doesn’t work as well for me (and would make The Stand a clear winner if you had to decide to read one book and not the other) is the character development. In spite of all his rhetoric about the paramount importance of story, Stephen King is a master of character… McCammon is very good just not asgood. I felt shortchanged in my knowledge of all the major players in Swan Song. I wanted to know far more about their backgrounds and how they came to be who they are. Josh – the Black Frankenstein – is the strongest character in the book, but I sure wanted to know more about him, same with Swan herself… same with Sister. And the characters who were perfect matches to the characters in The Stand (and there were more than a few) never quite measure up to King’s brood. McCammon’s “the man with the scarlet eye” may be an interesting blend of evil and guilt, but I sure didn’t find him as interesting as Randall Flagg.
I also felt that McCammon got just a little too sentimental in quite a few situations, especially the ending. I guess when you’ve spent over 900 pages immersed in a post-apocalyptic winter you probably feel entitled to a little sentimentality. But I do wish he’d dialed it back just a little.
Still, I would highly recommend SWAN SONG… for McCammon’s powers of description, for his powers of invention, his story, which unfolds beautifully and ties together almost perfectly, and for Swan herself, not so much as a living breathing character but as in ideal – a great force for good in what’s left of a crumbling world –the perfect person to build a story around.