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Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Swan Song by Robert McCammon
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Book Name: Swan Song
Author: Robert McCammon
Publisher(s): Pocket Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Post Apocalyptic / Horror / Science Fiction
Release Date: 1987

Back in the 1980s, when the Cold War was at its height, the spectre of nuclear war loomed large, and this was reflected in the fiction of the time. Some TV shows – the UK’s Threads and The Day After in the US spring to mind – were downright terrifying, enough to keep my teenage self awake at night, wondering what would really happen if the two superpowers decided to have a crack at each other.

Published in 1987, Swan Song is Robert R McCammon’s vision of the aftermath of such a conflict. I’d came across the author before with his vampire novel They Thirst; I lost some sleep with that one, too, after a séance scene that put real shivers up my spine. Over the years, Swan Song is a book I’ve meaning to pick up, but was daunted by the size of it. It’s a whopper – just over 850 pages – and, I think, out of print in the UK for many years. Scouring second-hand book shops brought no joy, but McCammon’s works are now seeing a resurgence in ebook format, so how could I resist?

At first glance, comparisons with Stephen King’s The Stand are inevitable. After a catastrophic event, the survivors band together in groups that are clear representations of good and evil, the former to protect a messiah-like figure while the latter seek to destroy her. Swan Song does dwell much on the mystical elements, however, making it feel like more like an epic fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world. The book starts by introducing us to its main characters, and it’s immediately clear who’s going to be on which side as soon as we meet them. McCammon and his characters unashamedly wear their hearts on their sleeves; there’s very little subtext, no need to read between the lines, and what we see is often what we get.

Once the heroes and villains are established, the missiles are allowed to fly. That séance scene I was telling you about? It’s nothing compared to this, the world wiped out with the press of a few buttons, made all the more terrifying by its plausibility. McCammon uses his research wisely as he depicts the bomb blasts and the aftermath that follows, although his descriptions of bursting blisters and the effects of radiation do become repetitive. Also, in telling many stories, point of view often shifts within the same scene, which was sometimes confusing, pulling me away from the story as I tried to work out whose head I was in. McCammon himself has admitted that some parts of the novel don’t work – a romance doesn’t quite grab the attention it should, for instance, and the drug-addicted prostitute was a cliché back then – but despite its bulk, Swan Song is never dull; I read the last quarter in one sitting, desperate to know what would happen to these people I’d invested so much time with.

Swan Song was the first of McCammon’s novels to become a New York Times best seller and, as well as being nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 1988, it also tied for the Bram Stoker award that same year. It’s very much of its time, with some set pieces grand enough to grace an 80s action movie, and because of this some of the surprises fall short. It isn’t subtle, but that’s also the book’s strength, making it raw and powerful. McCammon tells a riveting story, one that is fuelled by emotion and empathy for the characters he’s created. We experience the horror though their eyes, feeling their pain, fear and happiness with every word he writes. It’s a book worthy of all its accolades, a unique and often profound vision that’s epic in scope while remaining deeply personal, a blueprint for much of the post-apocalyptic fiction that would follow. Almost thirty years on, its power hasn’t diminished and the relevance of its message remains, which is perhaps the most frightening thought of all.

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Rating: 9.0/10 (4 votes cast)
Swan Song by Robert McCammon, 9.0 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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