Friday, August 12, 2011

The Swan Maiden

The Swan Maiden by Heather Tomlinson is a novel that uses the idea of a girl who can transform into a swan via a magical swan skin. This is not a direct retelling of any specific swan maiden tale, but uses elements prevalent in several, and sets it against a backdrop of medieval France. It has many fairy tale staples in it. The impoverished man seeking to perform a task to gain the hand of a maiden, magic, transformations, enchantresses. If you go into it keeping in mind that it is really just a long form fairy tale and are not expecting much more you may enjoy it. I didn't have this mindset going in and it really didn't do much for me as a result.
Hardcover on left, paperback on right.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In the quiet hour before dawn, anything can happen. Doucette can dream of being a creature of flight and magic, of wearing a swan skin like her older sisters. But she must run the castle household while her sisters learn to weave spells. Her dream of flying is exactly that . . . until the day she discovers her own hidden birthright. Sudden, soaring freedom—it is a wish come true. Yet, not even magic can protect against every danger, especially when the heart is involved. As she struggles to find her own way in the world, Doucette risks losing the one person she loves most of all.

The main character, Doucette, is a bullied doormat when we meet her. Unable to practice the magic her sisters, both swan maidens, were born to she is being trained by her mother to be a good wife and chatelaine. Her sisters bully her and use their magic to make her miserable. Then, during a time of spring cleaning, she finds a swan skin. Her swan skin that her mother has been hiding from her for years. Angry and energized with the knowledge that she can do magic too she strikes out on her own to join her sisters for their summer of magic learning with their aunt. She puts no thought or planning into her flight and takes absolutely no precautions. Then, intoxicated by her freedom and new found power, she propositions a guy she barely knows but has the hots for, then flies off in a huff before he can completely respond. (Showing her to be way too immature to be even thinking about a relationship like that.) This never changes throughout the entire novel. The only things standing between Doucette and her happy ever after is her own bratty petulance. Once she is reunited (the first time) with this young man they declare their love and intention wed. This is the most interesting part of the story. He has to complete three impossible tasks set by her father and she is struggling against her controlling mother. When they conquer her parents and have fled for his home, Doucette flies off in a huff again for no good reason other than she has to have her own way at all times. Clearly she was not ready for marriage. After spending some months alone she seeks out her love, who is then planning to wed some one else. Except I'm not convinced she really learned anything from any of this. The resolution of the story lacks closure because I couldn't help but feel she was going to repeat the same cycle over and over.

The hero of the tale is sacrificing, loving, caring, considerate and way to good for Doucette. I didn't have much respect for him because he made himself an endless victim of her fickle magical tantrums. I think his happily ever after will consist of being a doormat for his enchantress wife.

Some of these are issues inherent in fairy tales. You see them pop up all the time. The characters are selfish, two dimensional, self consumed, and focused on their own wishes. This is why Sondheim had so much fodder for writing Into the Woods. There are two acts to that play though, and in the end four of the characters have at least learned something and grown. You have hope for their future. This should be true of a fairy tale told in full novel form as well. You can do more, and I think should do more, with the character arcs. I was disappointed with The Swan Maiden because the characters never became real people. They were their two dimensional fairy tale caricatures from beginning to end.

There was an interesting question underneath the story. Could Doucette have both love and her magic? Does she have to choose or is there room for compromise? This mirrors the thoughts and struggles of many young women starting out in life. It would have been a compelling component if Doucette had been in any way sympathetic. Her behavior was too childish for this to be explored fully. (For a wonderful book that explores this conflict thoroughly and amazingly well read Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers,  my review.)

All that being said, the language of the book is beautifully descriptive and definitely conveys the old French setting well. If I had gone into reading this expecting nothing more than a longer form fairy tale I may not have been as disappointed.

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