Bone Swans: Stories Paperback – 7 Jul 2015
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Five stories, ranging in length from short story to novella. Each reminiscent of an old-school fairy tale, both beautiful and disquieting, with various recognizable tropes and archetypes and plotlines and characters all delicately woven together into something entirely new. Each told in phraseology that echoes the rhythm and poetry of a truly gifted oral storyteller, full of sure-footed language that carefully signals character, time, place, while nonetheless belonging clearly to the voice of this author alone.
Cooney clearly understands the evolution of stories, how bits and pieces of their DNA free-float between people before recombining in our minds, adapting themselves to the time and environment in which they're told. The stories themselves are familiar and yet different from anything I've read in a long time. Her masterful use of language reminded me more than once of David Mitchell; and yet, while Mitchell's cleverness is the sort that (justifiably) demands recognition, Cooney's style is almost the opposite. Subtle, lyrical, with a beauty that shines through its familiar trappings; you could read each story without ever noticing the careful craft of the words, and then they would be there to surprise and delight you upon reread.
These aren't long stories, but they're not quick reads either. They're as much poem as story, meant to be thoroughly enjoyed; read quickly, they lose much of their power. But if you love fairy tales, if you love stories, if you love beautiful use of language, if you enjoy the journey of the story as much as the destination? This is the book you didn't even know you desperately wanted.
Life on the Sun: Incredible worldbuilding in just a few pages. The mix of cultures, desert landscape, rights wronged and wrongs righted, and a nearly perfect ending.
The Bone Swans of Amandale: Interesting fusion of faerie tales, brought down-to-earth by the wonderfully grounded narrator, Maurice the Incomparable. I especially adored the characterisation of the Pied Piper, fey and lost and eldritch when he needs to be.
Martyr's Gem: Again, excellent world-building in a very short space. About the only quibble I have with this story is the subplot and ending: <spoiler>I'd have preferred to wonder how Hyrryai would discover her way to herself from where they were rather than the lot of them sailing off over the horizon. New beginnings are just too easy for this story, somehow.</spoiler>
How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One: Excellent rumpelstiltskin. I really liked Gordie.
The Big Bah-Ha: This story let the collection down, somehow. While the ending came back up to par, the first half was... uninspiring, in comparison. In any other collection I probably wouldn't have noticed, but after the first four stories, it was glaringly clumsy in comparison.
"The Bone Swans of Amandale" is a fairy tale mashup of "The Juniper Tree" meets "The Pied Piper" narrated by Maurice, a human/rat shapeshifter who is one of the most hilariously vicious and monstrously charming narrators I've run across in a long while. The swan people of Amandale are being killed by tyrannical mayor Ulia Gol and turned into ghostly musical instruments for her enjoyment (Gol is as unctuous as she is monstrous, a gloriously over-the-top antagonist for this type of collective-unconscious nightmare). Maurice assembles an unlikely band of heroes (including the Pied Piper) to save Dora Rose, the last of the swan people and the woman he loves: even if her hauteur and disdain for him should give him little hope.
For all its mythic underpinnings, "The Bone Swans of Amandale" is utterly contemporary in its sensibilities. You won't find hackneyed genre tropes here, or the stifling, overwrought language of pseudo-medieval fantasies. There's a telling section where the Pied Piper—the story is worth reading alone for the tragic, woe-burdened take on the Pied Piper Cooney spins—speaks to Ulia Gol in the language of the Gentry. The speeches are fill of "Thous" and "thees": anathema, right? But they're used so well, the language in that scene so heightened and powerful, that it conveys a deep sense of gravity and invites a bit of the numinous into this world. It's easily the best use of "thou" I've seen in recent fiction, deliberate, plot-appropriate, and beautifully written. Cooney in this section shows the limits of Ezra Pound's maxim "Speak in the language of your day." Nope. Be an artist, and use any tool you wish. Just use it well.
The clash of the mythic and the contemporary, the sacred and the profane, the ghastly and the noble create a wholly-satisfying reading experience. And I dare you to find a story with more gorgeous prose.
I've concentrated on "The Bone Swans of Amandale" because it's the title story and because it's the only original story in Bone Swans (and therefore the only work in the collection that would be up for independent awards). But as a whole, Bone Swans is a literary treasure-chest. "Martyr's Gem" is an eviscerating fantasy whodunnit, with the sadness and anger of the injustices it enumerates balanced by the principle characters who are by turns righteous and vengeful (Hyrryai); smart and modest (Shursta); or brazen, poetic and brimming with esprit (Sharrar). That, in general, is a recurring theme in Cooney's various stories: a monstrous world in which defiant, humorous protagonists refused to be cowed. And often those protagonists are women: the eponymous Milkmaid of "How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One" and Kantu of "Life on the Sun" are alternately indomitable to the point of self-defeating or submissive to duty to the point of plumbing and revealing as-yet undiscovered agency. And "The Big Bah-Ha," to mind the most phantasmagoric and nightmarish of the lot, is a grim carnival of grotesqueries and dream-landscapes that combine to create a vision of the afterlife that is unsettlingly delightful. It's a virtuoso performance, Bone Swans, with hat-tips to many genres even while, story after story, Cooney creates unique, heartbreaking worlds and situations and then places in them heroes who can, by hook or crook, come out alive on the other side. Kind of. (To say more would be spoilerish!)
Mike Allen has become known for the genre-bending Mythic Delirium anthologies he edits. Bone Swans is Mythic Delirium Press's first single-author collection, and you can see why Allen thought Cooney to be the perfect author to launch this new direction for the press. Cooney is an author whose originality will make attentive readers pause sentence to sentence, phrase to phrase. The worlds she depicts in these stories and novellas are so thoughtfully wrought, and the characters that inhabit them so decidedly alive, that if you find yourself being both emotionally overwhelmed and intellectually galvanized simultaneously, just know that you aren't alone. That's exactly the reading experience I had.