The Swan Kingdom by Zoë Marriott
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"The Wild Swans" retelling, 272 pages
Published March 25th 2008 by Candlewick Press (first published 2007)
Shadows fall across the beautiful, lush kingdom after the queen is attacked by an unnatural beast, and the healing skills of her daughter, Alexandra, cannot save her. Too soon the widowed king is spellbound by a frightening stranger, a woman whose eyes reflect no light. In a terrifying moment, all Alexandra knows disappears, including her beloved brothers, leaving her banished to a barren land. But Alexandra has more gifts than she realizes as she confronts magic, murder, and the strongest of evil forces, and is unflinchingly brave as she struggles to reclaim what is rightfully hers. Fantasy lovers will be held in thrall by this tale full of visual detail, peppered with a formidable destructive force and sweetened with familial and romantic love.
It's so hard for me not to compare any retelling that even touches on swans (The Wild Swans, The Six Swans, doesn't matter) without comparing it to Daughter of the Forest, so I was really worried going in that I would unconsciously (or even consciously) be setting The Swan Kingdom up to fail. But it amazed me how little I felt myself needing to compare. This isn't to say I didn't compare, because I definitely did, especially when it comes to the depth of the story (in which case I compared it to Marillier's DOTF and to Shadows on the Moon, another of Zoë's works.). But it stood on its own, and I was pleasantly surprised by that.
Shadows on the Moon was an engaging and quick read, and a good expansion of the fairy tale "The Wild Swans," with a bit of "The Ugly Duckling layered in, which I found interesting. I liked the main character, Alexandra. Alex is someone you can easily root for, and her narration pulled the story along at a steady, easy pace. I especially liked how things progressed with the villain, particularly in the end. I was even a bit shocked by the last little piece that falls into place at the end, and would kind of love to see that story told in full - that backstory and progression could be really fascinating in its own right.
I did wish for more struggle and lengthening of the tale; there's a certain ease with which everything happens, from the relationship with the romantic interest to Alex's struggles and ultimate awareness of herself, that ended up being the key reason I found myself compelled to compare - both to how Marillier layerd Daughter of the Forest, but also to how Marriott herself created this complex, painful struggle in Shadows on the Moon. This is not Shadows. But you know what, that's okay. It's easier and far less dark; but though it's not as complex or powerful as Shadows, the skill and the voice are still there. The Swan Kingdom is a first book and it shows how much she's grown, but that's not to say she didn't start off strong. Again, I know I always say I try not to read reviews of things before I write my own, but as I did with Strands of Bronze and Gold, I just couldn't resist seeing what a friend (who had also read Daughter of the Forest and Shadows on the Moon) had to say about this one. In this case, it was Heidi from Bunbury in the Stacks, and I'm gonna go ahead and quote her because I think she nailed how I felt about the writing:
When working through an author’s backlog, I have rarely seen such evidence of growth in their work–in a way I can take The Swan Kingdom and pinpoint what facets Marriott has since improved, and which were the foundations indicating how wonderful she would become.So, while I would have appreciated a story that lingered more and took the time to build Alexandra's world and struggles with more detail and depth, I still found myself really enjoying this, and appreciating how far Marriott has come in her writing and her ability to push a story and its characters. And I still definitely recommend giving this one a try. =)
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