Review: Black Swan

The Black SwanBlack Swan
by Mercedes Lackey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Black Swan / 978-0-88677-890-3

Swan Lake is my favorite ballet, period, and I trust Mercedes Lackey as a superb author, so I was very excited to open The Black Swan and delve deeply into the story. To my delight, Lackey has not only lived up to my expectations, but far succeeded them - I will gladly state that this is the best novel I have read this year, easily.

The story of the Swan Lake ballet is simple and Lackey does not lose the reader who might not be familiar with the source material. The evil wizard von Rothbart keeps captives maidens in his care and curses them to take the form of swans during the day, when there is no moonlight. The spell can be broken if a young man pledges his love and faithfulness to one of the ladies, the Princess Odette, and a Prince Siegfried steps forward to attempt this task, but von Rothbart plays him false and tricks him into swearing his pledge to his disguised daughter, one Odile, the black swan of the ballet. Siegfried and Odette cast themselves into the waters of the swan lake in despair. In some versions of the ballet, they are saved and von Rothbart is killed, but the ending varies according to troupe.

Lackey carefully remains true to her source material, filling in only the details of background and motivations, and her vibrant details are a delight. The gripping story follows the viewpoint of the much-neglected daughter Odile and asks the simple question: How does she feel about all this? Von Rothbart is a cold and cruel villain, and Lackey determines that he is naturally a cold and cruel father, as well. Odile is a strong sorceress, but a gentle woman, and strikes the perfect note as an unreliable narrator - she senses that she is nothing more than a tool and a vessel for her father's schemes, but she desperately believes that he loves her and that everything he does for her is for her own good. Through the course of the novel, she overcomes her scorn for the captured prisoners and comes to understand that their curse or, as von Rothbart claims, their "punishment" is not just or fair. When von Rothbart uses her against her will to trick Prince Siegfried into breaking his vow of loyalty, Odile turns on her father in shock, fear, and hatred, using her magic to kill him in order to save the prince and princess, her unlikely friends.

If this is a coming-of-maturity tale for the sheltered Odile, it is no less so for the regal Odette and the pampered Siegfried. Odette must come to face her own actions and past and determine that while her "punishment" is arbitrary, cruel, and unjust, neither were her actions completely blameless or without shame. She accepts this with dignity, and bears herself with courage and determination for the sake of her fellow captives. Siegfried, by contrast, has lived a life of pleasure and ease, encouraged by his mother who prefers that he stay infantile and she stay as Regent on the throne. He seduces and rapes women, barely seeing a difference between the two, and lives the life of a spoiled nobleman who has never been told how to behave to his fellow humans. When one of his "conquests" drowns herself and haunts his nightmares, he seeks to reform himself. When his efforts to reform himself by half are not enough to save the lovely Odette, he agrees to reform himself wholly and becomes a better person and a fair ruler as a result.

I simply cannot recommend this book enough. At 400 pages, the reading is gripping and swift, and I simply could not put the book down. This is easily the best book I have read this year and I could not have enjoyed it more - this book is simply perfect.

~ Ana Mardoll

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