Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mercedes Lackey's The Black Swan

A while back I posted a review of Mercedes Lackey's Firebird novel which was not the most enthusiastic ever, so it is with great pleasure that I reread her The Black Swan (which is not connected with the movie "Black Swan" coming out, starring Natalie Portman). It is a retelling of the story of Swan Lake, but from the perspective of Odile, the Black Swan, which is a fascinating idea. I'm also glad that the source was Swan Lake, which is not written on as often as the more "standard" fairy tales.

The first time I read this book was a while ago, and I think it was probably the first book I ever read with sexual content in it, so it was shocking to me and was really the only thing I remember about it. And Siegfried's character starts out like the prince in Firebird that I didn't like-a chauvenist who has sex with whoever he wants to, whenever he wants to, and has no compassion for the females or servants he uses. Now some people are indeed more liberal than the stereotypical chaste fairy tale characters, but this is the other extreme- throughout Firebird it seemed like this was a totally normal, healthy way for a prince to behave-"ah, boys will be boys." So Siegfried made me uncomfortable at the beginning of Black Swan-I wasn't sure how much was supposed to upset me and how much was supposed to be accepted by the modern reader. Although Siegfried is supposed to get you riled up on some level, at least if you're female (a lot of guys probably think his existence would be the dream life): at one point he muses two separate ladies he intends to have as his newest sex partners, "I'll have to make it clear from the start to both of them that I am the master, and I won't tolerate either of them acting as if she has any rights over me..."

But there's good news for this book: Siegfried grows as a character and has a change of heart after he is haunted by the ghost of a gypsy girl he raped, and a very powerful dream scene.

Overall, I was impressed by the characters as well as the plot. It's rich in symbolism, which is very rare for modern books...the contrast and paralells between the father/daughter relationship of von Rothbart/Odile and the mother/son- Clothilde/Siegfried. Mirrors are important, for they "reveal the truth," and masks are symbolic-literal physical masks, as seen on the book cover, as well as the masking of emotions. The concept of faithfulness and loyalty to lovers is a big one, as well as gender stereotypes-how people (male and female) tend to negatively stereotype the entire opposite gender.

In this version, von Rothbart captures women he believes have been unfaithful traitors, and deems them worthy of their punishment as swan maidens. Odile, at the beginning, is devoted to her father and only wishes to please him; she believes that the flock are wayward women. She practices her magic in order to gain rare approval from her father, and finally is forced to realize that the swan maidens are not what she thought, nor is her father. The book never reveals why von Rothbart is so insistent on punishing his view of sinful women, but I assumed his wife cheated on him and he made it his life's mission to punish the female race out of bitterness (at one point, Odile reflects that her own silvery white hair is odd compared to her father's red hair. She supposes it's due to magic, but the reader is left to wonder if she's really his daughter at all).

I also love this book because Lackey was clearly familiar enough with the ballet to nod to it occasionally-she refers to the four youngest swans, and the first time you meet them they are dancing-this is the Dance of the Cygnets:

These are, apparantly, vegan ballerinas...
Also, in the final ballroom sequence, she mentions that some of the guests are dressed in costumes of different countries, and that they perform dances for the prince. These are all dances performed in the ballet-here's ABT's Hungarian Dance:

In my opinion, this book is far above Firebird in sophistication. The characters were intriguing, and their relationships with one another were fascinating; the characters had growth, the plot was imaginative and complex, the real world was blended expertly with a world of magic that was thrilling yet believeable; the climax was very exciting. Go read it. It is, however, intended for mature audiences, so don't give it to your little ballet-loving neice for Christmas.

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