Monday, October 10, 2016

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

I was so excited to get this one in my mailbox. I loved The Scorpion Rules, and when I was offered a chance to review the sequel I had to edit all the exclamation points out of my enthusiastic reply. Erin Bow is simply an astonishing author; and this book is possibly even better than the first one (except that's actually impossible—when I reviewed The Scorpion Rules I said I wasn't sure I would reread it because of how intense it is, but I reread it before reading The Swan Riders, and loved it all to pieces even more).

Note that I will do my bestest not to spoil Swan Riders at all in this review (you really don't want it to be spoiled, trust me!), but it's impossible to talk about it without spoiling Scorpion Rules, so if you haven't read the first book, go read it now before you even look at the blurb for Swan Riders!

And if you've read Scorpion, then all you really need is this pretend blurb from E.K. Johnston:
"All the emotional punches of THE SCORPION RULES, but with horses instead of goats."
Very true. But, okay, I'll rave a bit more about it. LAST CHANCE NOT TO BE SPOILED FOR THE FIRST BOOK. Ahem. The Swan Riders starts right after the end of Scorpion.

Awesome first line:
So. It is perhaps not everyone who asks to be murdered, gets their wish, and then, three days later, finds that their most immediate problem is that they cannot ride a horse. 
Greta is riding across the Saskatchewan prairie with Talis (in Rachel's body) and two Swan Rider escorts, Francis Xavier and Sri. New characters that you will come to love with as much intensity as you loved Xia, Thandi, the Abbot, etc.  (Just so you don't get disappointed: Xia doesn't get any screen time in this book, though she's still an important emotional presence. But Elián does. Oh, Elián!)

We find out about Swan Riders—how and why they were created, their powers and limitations, why they choose to become Swan Riders, their relationship with Talis and the other AIs—and Bow has lots of room here for her trademark heartwrenching moral and existential dilemmas. Oh, Francis Xavier!

We find out more about Talis—oh, Talis! Some of the best scenes in the book are interludes from his point of view, memories that pack in a lot of world-building and explanation while being equal parts funny, creepy and heartbreaking. We meet a few more AIs, and learn more about why they are going insane (and why Greta might, if she can't get a grip on herself).

And, of course, because this is what the best science fiction does, Bow uses the idea of artificial intelligence, and Greta, who is turning into one, to explore what it means to be human. "The who of me. The why of me." What love means. Why it matters.

I said this in my CM Magazine review (I try to sound dispassionate and scholarly in these reviews, but sometimes my raving voice leaks through): Bow’s writing is elegant and exact: she illuminates rather than explains the technological and metaphysical complexities that underpin the novel, always bringing every idea back to the impact it has on an individual.
He'd seen it over and over: how a single memory rose from the organic mind, and then from the datastore, and then (reinforced, and stronger) from the organics, and then (reinforced, and stronger) . . . it was two mirrors reflecting each other. It was feedback squealing through a microphone. A single moment building to an intensity beyond what any psyche could endure.
 How could there be no circuit breaker? How could there be no grace? 
Those sentences that punch you in the gut. Lots of them in this book. (Talis learned how to "make it personal" from Erin Bow, just saying.) Lots of tense, visceral moments; lots of rock-you-back-on-your-feet plot twists. And humour, still so much humour. Talis being snarky, Elián being Elián, horses (with names like NORAD and Gordon Lightfoot) being horses.

I keep trying to write sentences that explain how wonderful Bow is at exploring really cool philosophical ideas with gripping drama, and my sentences keep getting tied up in themselves (like this one). Bow is just a master of metaphor and symbol and character and pacing, and everything, really.

The short version? If you loved Scorpion, you won't be disappointed in Swan, so just go read it already!

I've got the smell of roasting ham wafting through my house, and it's actually a good food metaphor for Swan Riders: salty, savoury, a bit smoky, meaty, all kinds of complex goodness.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, by the way! I'm thankful that we have awesome writers like Erin Bow in our beautiful country!


  1. I've never heard of either of these, but your descriptions of the language and the writing make me want to read them. Happy Thanksgiving as well!

    1. In my attempts not to be spoilery, I managed to say nothing at all about the plot, so it's probably a confusing review for someone who's never heard of the books! You kind of have to read my review of Scorpion Rules first (linked above). (Short version: unique dystopian sci-fi where artificial intelligences control the world and enforce peace by keeping leaders' children hostage. When the kids choose to resist it is way more scary and realistic than a Hunger Games-style battle fest.)

  2. Wow. What a great first line. That will capture the readers. Thanks for this review. I'm not much of a fantasy reader, but my niece would love this.

  3. ELIAN. I love so much the ways she continues to use him -- he has a very traditional YA dystopian hero vibe to him, and I love that Erin Bow keeps undercutting that, without undercutting HIM. Like, we still love him, but we just can't not see his limitations. Ugh it's so good.

    I super loved this book, and it made me cry on the bus, which I never do. A wonderful exploration of what humanity means. (I missed Xie. She's such a damn queen.)

    1. Oh, yes, you're so right about Elián! There's that great line when he says "Don't you trust me?" and Greta says, "Not with long-term planning." And then the whole interchange after that, ending with, "the most extraordinary thing about him was that he could stand in those crosshairs with steady feet and open eyes." I love the way this woman writes!

  4. Thank you so much for not spoiling! I can't wait to read this. Is there more to come?

    1. Apparently not. It comes to a satisfying conclusion, although I, for one, would be happy to read another book about what could happen next. But Erin Bow calls it a duology, not a trilogy, so I guess we get to use our imaginations! (Except she also said " It's a big world, and I might not be done with it forever," so we can always hope!)