Jan 28, 2008

The Black Swan by Mercedes Lackey

The Black Swan is a retelling of the story of Swan Lake. I’ve never actually seen the ballet, but the Tchaikovsky piece is among my favourite pieces of classical music, and I grew up more or less obsessed with the 1981 Japanese animated movie version. So this story is one I’ve always had a soft spot for, and I was thrilled to find a novel-length retelling of it.

As most of you probably know, Swan Lake is the story of Odette, a princess who was cursed by a powerful sorcerer, the Baron Von Rothbart, and condemned to spend her days as a swan, only returning to her human form by moonlight. Prince Siegfried sees the Swan Maiden and falls in love with her. The Baron tells Odette that she will be released for her curse if her lover remains faithful to her, and then, with the help of his daughter Odile, comes up with a scheme to trick the prince into betraying Odette.

Like most fairy tale retellings, this one changes the story to some extent, and it especially changes the character’s motivations. In Mercedes Lackey’s version, the Baron has a concrete reason for having cursed Odette and all the other members of the flock of Swan Maidens. He is a self-righteous man whose goal is to punish devious and unfaithful women—or rather, women that he perceives as such. Of course, his definition of deviousness and unfaithfulness is rather different when it comes to men, most particularly to himself.

Prince Siegfried is also quite different in this version. He’s immature and a womaniser for most of the book, but he does become more sympathetic as the story unfolds. Lackey also introduces a new character: Queen Clothilde, Siegfried’s mother, who is the epitome of an evil Queen. She is a cold, calculating woman who spends her days scheming ways to keep her son from taking the throne away from her when he turns eighteen.

But the greatest of the changes is in Odile. A great deal of the story is told from her perspective—she is the Black Swan of the title—with a few chapters from Siegfried and the Queen’s perspectives. I was glad that the story focused on her so much, because she is a character that always intrigued me. This novel is much more her story than Odette’s. It’s about the young woman’s discovery of who she truly is, about her escape from the clutches of a manipulative father, and about her conquest of her own independence.

This is a gripping novel, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the writing itself kept me from loving it. It was, for the most part, too overdone, leaving absolutely no room for subtlety. It was especially bad when it came to descriptions of the character’s emotions. I found them so over the top that as a result the characters never quite felt genuine to me. An example:
Odile watched her father's back, swallowing involuntary bitter tears of disappointment and rejection, feeling her head droop a little as her heart sank with dejection.
In one single sentence we have the words "bitter", "disappointment", "rejection" and "dejection" thrown at us. A single one of those would probably have been enough to convey Odile’s state of mind. All of them together are, well, a bit too much for me. Another example:
If she could have wept, her tears would have burned furrows down her face, so bitter were the dregs of degradation that she drank at that moment.
See what I mean? I have to admit that the writing really bothered me at first, so much that I pondered putting the book aside. But after about fifty pages I got so lost in the story that I forgot about it, or perhaps I just got used to it.

For someone reasons, in my head I always associated Mercedes Lackey with Robin McKinley and Patricia A. Mckillip. They are all female fantasy authors that have written fairy tale retellings, and they’re also authors that have been recommended to me repeatedly over the years. I had always assumed that when I finally got around to reading them they would become favourites of mine. My first experience with Robin McKinley was a very good one; I’ve yet to try Patricia A. Mckillip's novels, but, judging by her short stories, I think I’ll really like her; however, I don’t think Mercedes Lackey could ever become a favourite of mine.

But by this I don’t mean that she’s bad. She might not be the most lyrical of writers, but she is clearly a gifted storyteller. I’m still interested in reading her Elemental Master series, in which each book is based on a fairy tale. I guess that with her I will always find an enthralling story, even if not exactly beautiful prose. And while a book that I don’t think is well written could never become a favourite of mine, I can still spend some pleasant hours lost in its pages. Of course, the less I like the writing, the more I have to like the story to remain interested. Mercedes Lackey does seem to be capable of writing stories that are strong enough to keep my interest despite her shortcomings as a writer.


  1. Sounds interesting, but something always put me off Mercedes Lackey and I have never read anything by her. I love re-tellings, but the second quote you put up is seriously OTT! I will wait and see what you think of some of her other books I think before rushing to make a decision.

  2. I fully believe it must have been one heck of a story for you to stick with it, because these quotes are downright laughable!

  3. Reading your post,I was getting really interested in the story until I read those quotes. I get really irritated with over-explained (or bored of severely understated) writing, so I guess I'll pass on this author!

  4. I remember really enjoying this book. I also loved all the elemental masters books I've read so far. I agree Lackey isn't one of the great writers but they are like candy to me and I can't stop reading them. I've actually been thinking it was time to read something of hers again.

  5. Hmm...I think I have this book in my TBR pile. Just haven't got the chance to read it yet.

    I agree that those quotes sounds a little too overwhelming, but like what others said the story must be so good that you will ignore them altogether. ;P

  6. Wow-that second quote had me laughing out loud!! Much as I love this story, I'll probably pass; I'm more picky about writing than story!

    BTW, I've given you the "You Make My Day" award that's going around. :)

  7. Mercedes Lackey will always have a special place in my bookish heart as the author who hooked me on fantasy. I have only read one of her fairy tale re-tellings, and the one I did read, I liked quite a bit. I was much more into her Valdemar world novels and have read every one of them.

    I agree that she isn't the best writer and I can name a few of her books that earned eye rolls from me in later years because of the writing. I do think she has a gift for story telling, and it's that and her characters which hold me captive when I read one of her books.

    She's not the best fantasy writer by any means, and I have read many better fantasy novels between the time I first picked up her books. I can't really say that any of her books count among my favorites. Still, she is an author I will always think of fondly and plan to read again.

  8. I can't say I'm into the retelling of fairy tales. Can't say I'm not either but they don't draw me enough to buy one of the books lol.

    I did read a short story by Lackey that has made me think I'd like to read her Joust series.. but now reading how others seem to feel about her overall writing abilities I'm not sure about the series. I'll let it rest for now lol.
    I do like Margaret Weis' writing for high fantasy, and am becoming a fan of a few YA female authors like Cornelia Funke.

  9. Hi Nymeth! It's me again. Just want to let you know that I have passed you an award. ;)

  10. Rhinoa: I remember that both Kailana and Literary Feline wrote positive reviews of "The Fire Rose", the first book in the fairy tale series. I'll try that one next and then I'll share my thoughts. Something about her that puts me off is the fact that most of her books have hideous romance-ish covers. It's silly, I know, but I can't help it!

    Debi: lol, they are, aren't they? And I'd be lying if I said they aren't even worse ones in the book. But it's Swan Lake, and the fact that I love Swan Lake gave me extra patience.

    Jeane: I am not a fan of overstated things either. Subtlety is a fine thing!

    Nicola: She does tell very good stories, so I can understand getting hooked on her books. I need to try the Elemental Masters series.

    Melody: The story IS good, so if you're patient with the writing you will enjoy it. Thanks so much for the award, btw! :)

    Eva: I was laughing when I was typing it too :P But yeah, if you're picky about writing them I don't recommend this one. And thanks once again for the award!

    Literary Feline: I know how you feel. There are some writers that I feel the same way about. They may not be the best, but there's something about their books that makes them special for me and makes me return to them. I remember your review of The Fire Rose - it really made me want to read it. I'm going to pick that one up sometime.

    Deslily: I have yet to read Margaret Weis - she's on my "someday" list. Cornelia Funke I will read soon, though!

  11. Haha, those are fabulous examples. I agree 100% with your assessment. I have read from the Valdemar series, and all I could think was "WHY do these characters have to many FEELINGS???" You put it a bit more eloquently.

    Deslily -- Cornelia Funke is my favorite!

  12. I have yet to read anything by Mercedes Lackey, but her work has been recommended to me a number of times over the years (and the same goes for McKinley and McKillip).

    The story definitely must have been good, because the quotes you posted are, as you said, pretty overdone.

    Great review!

    I can second deslily's recommendation for Margaret Weis - I enjoy her writing a great deal.

  13. Like you I can be really picky and annoyed by the style. But if the story and the characters are good enough I usually try to forgive and forget the writing. (for example I found Anne Rice's style redundant and over the top.But I know lots of people love it too)

    You mentioned Patricia McKillip and I knew the name sounded familiar. had to go and check on Librarything and indeed I've read one of her books as a child. It is called The Changeling Sea and although it was in Italian and read long time ago, I do remember being poetic, and unusual. One day I'd like to re-read one day

  14. Scott: I guess I shouldn't expect her other books to be any different :P I am really looking forward to reading more Cornelia Funke!

    Quixotic: Thanks! I need to try Margaret Weis sometime.

    Valentina: Yes, if the story is good I forgive and forget. Anne Rice has a writing style that annoys a lot of people, I know, but for me it works. It might help that I fell in love with her stuff when I was 14/15... I was obviously less demanding back then, and nowadays it's hard to see faults in something that I've loved for so long. I've read some of Patricia McKillip's short stories, and poetic is indeed a good word to describe her writing. I do like it a lot.


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