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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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06/17/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: The Black Swan"

The Black Swan
by Mercedes Lackey
Published by Daw Books, Inc., 1999

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

Once again I find myself reviewing a book by Mercedes Lackey, a sci-fi fantasist without peer. Anyone who's familiar with the ballet "Swan Lake" will know the story, which Ms. Lackey has given her own unique interpretation. For those of you who aren't into ballet, here's a brief rundown: the black swan is Odile von Rothbart, the only child of a powerful, shape-shifting sorcerer, Baron Eric von Rothbart. Odile lost her mother when she was a little girl, and her father considers his wife's death the ultimate betrayal. So his self-appointed task is to fly about the German countryside disguised as an eagle-owl, one of the most cunning birds of prey, to ensnare faithless women and turn them into swans. He makes his daughter the guardian of this enchanted flock, giving her the ability to become a black swan whenever she pleases. But the others are cursed by his magic to be swans by daylight and maidens by moonlight, including the beautiful Princess Odette, who becomes the white Swan Queen, the head of this all-female flock, some of whom are nobly-born ladies, some peasants. But all are guilty of having betrayed a man in some way or another, usually by refusing to wed the man their fathers picked for them to marry, which in those days was a no-no for any girl.

Remember, back then it was "Father knows best", and the father was regarded as the supreme head of the family, just as the Pope was, and is, the supreme head of the Catholic Church. Women were considered weak, inferior creatures in need of an older, wiser being to rule them, so they were ruled by their fathers until they came of age to marry, sometimes as young as twelve, then they were married off to a suitable husband of their father's choice. Love matches were a minstrel's fantasy; if you were a woman, you had to marry whomever your father picked for you, even if he was older than your father, even if he was an alcoholic, a brute, a gambler, or had another woman on the side. Or several women, as well as their illegitimate children. Anyway, Odette, a spirited princess who refused to marry the old man her father the king had chosen for her, despite the vow he had made to her dying mother never to force her to marry (because he had a bigger army than the king's and had promised to use it to defend the kingdom in exchange for a princess bride), challenges the sorcerer to win her freedom and that of the rest of the flock. Von Rothbart accepts her challenge, and tells her that she must "capture the faith of a man who knows you as you are, and hold him as well," for one month, from full moon to full moon, then she will break the spell upon herself and the other maidens and they will all be free. The catch is, the man must remain "utterly true to you, and swear to no other."

Odile, who fears her father as much as she loves him, knows in her heart that he has no intention of keeping his pact with the Swan Queen. Somehow he will find a way to break it and keep her and the others enslaved. And he does; Queen Clothilde, regent of a kingdom far from the baron's domain, is scheming to murder her only son, Prince Siegfried, who is about to turn eighteen and claim his late father's throne. The queen has gotten too used to ruling to give up the throne now. So she gladly conspires with the sorcerer to marry her son to his daughter, in exchange for von Rothberg arranging an untimely death for the prince as soon as his new wife bears him an heir. Unknown to the sorcerer, his daughter is fast becoming as good an enchanter as he is. She's getting stronger every day, but is still unsure of her power, because she's still so dependant on her father's love and approval. She's so blinded by her need for her father's love, she doesn't even notice, as Odette does, how drained of energy she feels after her father touches her, or how listless the flock of swans becomes after he has been to see them. He is drawing energy from his own daughter, as well as the swan maidens, in order to make himself and his magic stronger. Will Odile see through her father's machinations in time to save her friend the Swan Queen and the other enchanted maidens from spending the rest of their lives as swans?

As ever, Ms. Lackey writes with one foot in the realm of fantasy and one in the real world, giving us a look at life in the past and how hard it really was for peasants and nobles alike; living in drafty homes without central heating or running water (all those colorful tapestries you see on the walls of castles in the movies are there as much to keep the drafts out as for decoration), going without fresh vegetables all winter and eating only cured meats like ham because there was no refrigeration to preserve perishable food, making all their clothing by hand, drinking only wine or beer because the local water was often brackish or tainted by cholera. All the nasty little details of living in the past that are so often passed over by other novelists are casually mentioned in passing by Ms. Lackey, as if they were no big deal, just some minor inconveniences the characters have to put with every day, the same way we put up with traffic jams and newspaper strikes. But her talent for creating sympathetic characters causes you to believe there really was a beautiful princess enchanted into swan shape by an ambitious, woman-hating sorcerer, who doesn't hesitate to use his own daughter to further his ambition. The handsome Prince Siegfried is not without flaws, among them being overly fond of women, but he is redeemed in the end by his love for the Swan Queen. But your heart must go out to young Odile, the sorceress in training, when she finally discovers her father's evil plan, which is to replace the Swan Queen with his own daughter in disguise at the prince's coming of age costume ball, where he plans to announce his betrothal to the woman he loves.

The theme of the story seems to be that of loyalty and betrayal; two parents, Queen Clothilde and Baron von Rothberg, intend to betray their children for the sake of their own ambition, while their children, Odile and Siegfried, are trying so hard to win their love and approval. Odile hides the true extent of her sorceress talent from her father when she sees he only approves of her "womanly" magics, like a spell for cleaning and dusting a hall full of shabby old banners, while Siegfried plays the dutiful son and puts aside his wastrel ways to court the favor of the people he must rule, showing respect to the older nobles at court and playing fair with their sons while practicing swordplay, even being nice to the six princesses his mother comes up with for him to choose a bride from. Of course, once he meets Odette all bets are off. Odile's moment of truth comes at the royal costume ball, which she and her father are invited to, of course, when she finds herself in a beautiful black swan costume wearing the face of Odette and being presented to the prince as his beloved by her treacherous father, whose magic prevents her from speaking up and telling Siegfried who she really is.

The hypocrisy of a sorcerer who considers it his duty to seek out and punish treacherous women, while betraying the woman who is closest to him, is equaled only by the hypocrisy of a queen who wishes to go on ruling for the good of the state because her son is so incompetent, blissfully ignoring the fact that she raised him that way, to insure she'd be asked to go on ruling once it was seen how hopeless a ruler Siegfried would be. Clothilde is as ill-pleased to see Siegfried becoming a good ruler as von Rothberg is at seeing his daughter attempting to master stronger magic, because both know that their plans will be foiled if their children turn out to be as good, or better, than they are. In the "Swan Lake" ballet, Prince Siegfried and Odette choose to commit suicide together rather than be parted, but in Ms. Lackey's retelling of the tale Odile is given the sad choice of either betraying her friend the Swan Queen or betraying her father the evil sorcerer, so that at least one of them can live happily ever after. Which proves that "what goes around comes around"; treachery breeds treachery, and parents who abuse their authority over their children shouldn't be surprised to find those same children turning against them when they get old enough to know what's going on.

"The Black Swan" is an excellent coming-of-age tale for a young girl, especially one who's into ballet and folklore. It's also a good read for those who enjoy traditional fantasy with a twist, the "what if" school of fantasy of which Mercedes Lackey is a proud graduate, along with Tanith Lee (Read Lee's "Red As Blood", a gothic retelling of the Snow White story in which the heroine is a vampire), both of whom have built successful writing careers as much on the retelling of old tales as on their own original material. I highly recommend it!

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