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!
Title: 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