Retro Friday Review: The Swan Kingdom by Zoë Marriott

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March 22, 2013 by Heidi

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!

The Swan Kingdom by Zoe MarriottTitle: The Swan Kingdom [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Zoë Marriott [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Retelling
Published: October 13th, 2009 by Candlewick Press (first published in 2007)
Format: Paperback; 272 pages.
Source: Gifted by lovely teen blogger Debz.

You probably know me already.  In every story you’ve ever been told, someone like me exists.  A figure in the background, barely noticed by the main players.  A talentless, unwanted child.  The ugly one.  The ugly one only gets in the way.  She is out of place as a sparrow in a clutch of swans.  This was the role I had in my father’s hall.

It was the role my father gave me.

With Zoë Marriott’s The Swan Kingdom, I experienced a sensation that is new to me–one of going back through time in a writer’s life.  When working through an author’s backlog, I have rarely seen such evidence of growth in their work–in a way I can take The Swan Kingdom and pinpoint what facets Marriott has since improved, and which were the foundations indicating how wonderful she would become.

Alexandra is a King’s daughter.  Her and her three brothers reside in the Kingdom, the only land where peace and plenty are known.  Children of a cunning woman capable of Great workings who is able to heal people and coax the earth to life, Alexandra and her siblings are taught from a young age how to work the land around them.  David is bound to rule, Hugh to be a great lord who defends his brother’s lands, and Robin would be a great scholar.  Alexandra would be only herself, too unattractive to have hopes of marrying as far as her father is concerned.  When their mother is killed by a beast and their father returns home from the hunt with a beautiful and horrible woman, the Kingdom falls under shadow.  Alexandra is exiled while her brothers are banished under enchantment, leaving her alone to find a way to restore the Kingdom.

I was uncertain going in how I would take any retelling of The Wild Swans after having read what has become one of my favorite books of all time, Daughter of the Forest, which retells essentially the same tale.  However, I needn’t have worried.  Zoë Marriott takes this heartwrenching tale and makes it her own, not only telling The Wild Swans with unexpected changes, but also making it a sort of Ugly Duckling retelling.  One fairy tale is so subtly infused with the other, I might have missed it were it not for her opening and dedication.  The Swan Kingdom is a nod to swans in all their fairy tale forms.

The way Marriott crafts magic structures never fails to take my breath away.  She wraps her world in magic like a cloak, and lets it flow freely around her characters–always a tenuous connection rather than a solid one.  The evil magic in The Swan Kingdoms is as choking as the currents of the enaid are cool and ever changing.  What could easily be confusing and stumbling is Marriott’s forte, her utilization of magical structures flow as freely and easily as her stories themselves.

Where The Swan Kingdom stumbles is in its center and the development of the romance which sets up for the final portion of the story.  Alexandra experiences insta-love with a young man of Midland, where she is exiled, Gabriel.  They develop a friendship over time, and though love is not mentioned it is clear that she is besotted.  This wouldn’t have bothered me so much if she hadn’t been struck speechless by his eyes the moment they met.  However, romance is also an area I can happily say has improved in Marriott’s writing since, and though I didn’t enjoy the way it came about, I was still very happy with the pairing in the end.

Where The Swan Kingdom shines is in its beginning and end.  Marriott creates this beautiful world for us, and teaches us about it as small Alexandra herself learns and grows.  I love the clear passage of time, and gradual changes of the body that turn Alexandra from an ugly duckling into a creature of power and beauty, in a way that is both unseen and unexpected by Alexandra herself.  I am also happy to report that even if you know The Wild Swans well, you won’t quite anticipate the ending of The Swan Kingdom.  Again, Marriott has made this story her own.  She doesn’t deviate from the spirit, trial, or beauty (though I will admit at times I felt that things should be harder for Alexandra than they were), but she doesn’t give us the wrote ending either.

In the end, I definitely recommend The Swan Kingdom as a quick and charming read, but I also forewarn readers not to go in expecting to be floored.  The Swan Kingdom is not the strongest of retellings, nor the strongest of Marriott’s works, but it is very worth a reader’s time regardless.  I feel that younger readers in particular may fall in love with this one, with its surprising warmth and love of family, it is not as dark or harrowing as it could be–though yes, it is still a challenge to overcome.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Zoë Marriott’s The Night Itself was on my most anticipated for 2013 list, and I continue to be excited to see Marriott evolve as a writer–it’s going to be so different than anything she’s done before.

Recommended for:  Those who enjoyed The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors, Shadows on the Moon by Zoë Marriott, or Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson.  Or simply any readers who love The Wild Swans, The Ugly Duckling, or retellings in general.

Get a second opinion:
Bibliophilic Monologues – “Perhaps it was intended for a younger audience because while the threads were available for a much richer tapestry, I found the novel to be simple and resolved too neatly to have any lasting effect on me.”
Debz Bookshelf – “The ending was still very powerful and one of my favorite parts, but it was so quick, and I may have enjoyed it more if it had been more thought out.”
The Review Diaries – “The book does have a few errors and passages that dragged a little when they could have been tighter, but these are inevitable with a first novel, and in truth it just left me more excited to read her next books.”
Random Musings of a Bibliophile – “Fans of Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest might find this to be too simple in comparison.  The Swan Kingdom would work well even with a much younger audience.”

I’ve also reviewed:
Shadows on the Moon by Zoë Marriott

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12 comments »

  1. Angie says:

    Agreed. I struggled to finish this one. It might appeal more to younger readers. I read another Zoe Marriott book after this one, but wasn’t overly taken with it either.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I got through it so quickly because it was short, but it’s certainly better for younger readers than one that holds up.

  2. I love seeing how authors grow and change over time, but seeing as I wasn’t a huge fan of Shadows on the Moon, I’m not sure how much I’d like this one, so I think I’ll have to skip it. I am really looking forward to her next novel, though, so I’m excited to see what what early readers think of that! :)

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I didn’t think this one would be fore you since you didn’t enjoy Shadows on the Moon so much. I’m SO excited for The Night Itself, really can’t wait to see what she does with Urban Fantasy (and isn’t the cover marvelous?). It’s one of those I’ll likely pick up even though it’s a series start. I’ll let you know!

  3. Having just finished Daughter of the Forest myself, I don’t think that any other retelling of The Wild Swans tale could compare, although this one sounds different enough to still be surprising in its own way. I haven’t read anything by Zoe Marriott, but I’d be curious to read her works the same way you did–newer things first–to see the promise of her writing.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, this was NOTHING compared to DotF. I enjoyed it, but it really doesn’t hold a candle in comparison. I would definitely recommend reading her recent work, I’ve really enjoyed it and want to read more.

  4. Asheley says:

    I’ve always heard great things about Zoe Marriott, but I’ve never read any of her work yet. I know of another blogger or two that absolutely loves her, and that alone plus your great review is enough to convince me to pick up something by her at some point in the future.

    • Heidi says:

      I hope you do pick up something by Marriott, Asheley! I’d go with some of her more recent work though before starting here.

  5. Okay, so now I want to read The Swan Kingdom and Daughter of the Forest. I am sort of a sucker for books centering around swans, and fairytales with swans were some of my favorites growing up.

    Also, I know what you mean about being able to see an author grow. That has happened to me with some other authors. Julia Quinn comes to mind. I read some of her later stuff first, then went back and read her debut novel. I could very clearly see how much better she became as an author, and also how even in her debut, there was something special there.

    Anyway, thanks for the recs. I’m putting them both on hold right now :)

    • Heidi says:

      Oh, you DEFINITELY need to read Daughter of the Forest. One of my favorite books EVER. But yes, I loved seeing how Marriott’s grown in her writing since her debut. I’m starting to notice more when debuts aren’t great but they still have some special quality to them that makes me seek out more from that author to see how they evolve.

  6. I do wish I had more experiences of being able to map how an author has changed over time. Perhaps this will happen when I’ve been blogging for a longer time. For the most part, I feel like I end up reading an author’s works in order, or near enough in order that I don’t notice (m)any differences between older and newer works. Although it seems as though you didn’t enjoy The Swan Kingdom as much as you enjoyed Shadows on the Moon, that is really cool that you were able to pick up on certain threads and ideas that would grow with Marriott as a writer. I am not sure about reading this one, but I do own a copy of Shadows of the Moon and can’t wait to give that a shot!

    • Heidi says:

      I often read an author’s work in order as well, Amanda! This was a rare exception for me, and it was pretty obvious how much she’s grown as an author since writing this one. I DO recommend giving Shadows on the Moon a shot since you own it! I really enjoyed it, much more than this one, it’s a beautiful world/story.

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