The Seventh Swan – Nicholas Stuart Gray

From the old standby, Wikipedia: “Neil Gaiman has written that [Nicholas Stuart] Gray ‘is one of those authors I loved as a boy who holds up even better on rereading as an adult’.”

This is such a perfect quote – it’s wonderfully true. Given some of the events in Susan Dexter’s The True Knight, I thought of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s The Seventh Swan, and pulled it off the shelf. Wow. The book uses one of my favorite devices: it takes a well-known story, in this case a fairy tale, and re-imagines it, pushes it out further. The original story is “The Six Swans” (not seven?), in which an evil step-mother turns her husband’s six sons into birds. Their sister can restore them, but the only way is to weave shirts for them out of nettles (or something similar), and cannot speak (or smile, possibly) until they’re complete. A neighboring king finds her in the midst of the task, falls in love with her, and marries her, and she keeps on weaving, even when the people decide she must be a witch and go to burn her at the stake. She keeps weaving, even managing to retain her hold on her work when they boost her onto the pyre. The good folk are about to light the kindling when the swan brothers arrive, and she throws the shirts out onto them – but the last one is incomplete, and when her youngest brother is restored he is left with one wing.

Gray sets the story in Scotland in perhaps the 18th century, and picks up the thread about two years after the fairy tale ended. The six fully human brothers (there were seven brothers here) are off living their lives – but the seventh, Alasdair, has not done well adjusting to life as a human – and life with one wing. Gray was rather cruel here, making the wing his right arm, rendering him unable to fight without extensive retraining of his off hand. (The cover artist, Carl Lundgren, while creating a beautiful illustration, not only gets this wrong but shows Alasdair with a sword in his hand. I don’t think Lundgren is usually that badly off, but this is a classic case of Illustrator Did Not Read the Manuscript. It’s not a minor point.) Alasdair lives with his courageous sister Agnes, who is married to the chief of Kinrowan. She is a sisterly cross between exasperated and horribly worried for him; his interpersonal skills are almost nil, and every time he hears swans fly over what little sociability he might muster up vanishes. He is filled with self-pity and self-loathing both, and his only wish is that his sister had not changed him. He was free as a swan, and was happy so for almost twenty years – humanity holds nothing for him. His mercenary henchman, Ewen, is a kind of crusty mother hen to him, but has no better luck reaching him.

It was strange how reading this straight after True Knight made for confusion with the names; in TK the swan-lad was Even, so I continually had to stop and regroup reading about the swan-lad Alasdair and his mercenary Ewen.

Agnes knows he needs to be snapped out of it, and has a plan. A neighboring chief and his daughter Fenella are visiting, and Fenella is lovely, kind, and gentle … just what he needs, thinks Agnes. As the book opens, Alasdair is maneuvered into dancing with her – only to stop dead in the middle of it as he hears wild swans in the air. He runs off, leaving her there and making it obvious that love at first sight isn’t going to be the saving grace in this story. Alasdair isn’t going to be that easy to fix.

Nothing is that easy for the characters in this story. An evil hobgoblin, a missing witch, a cattle thief, and a mysterious bard all factor into an increasingly elaborate plan to force Alasdair into growing up and accepting his loss of flight. I thought I had an idea of how it might turn out – and (no great surprise) I was utterly wrong. And shocked. Although the tone throughout the story is light and often funny, this has a surprisingly adult ending for something specifically marketed as a children’s/young adult book – not adult in terms of violence or sex, but gravity. Put it this way: the bard, Hudart, foretells something very ominous – and he’s right.

And, perversely, that makes the book even better. If it had had the light and fluffy happy ending I expected, I’d look back on The Seventh Swan fondly and forget about it before too long. Instead, though, it’s going to be with me for a while. Beautiful characterizations, beautiful writing with a far better feel for Scotland than all of those Highland romances that keep multiplying like tribbles put together, and a beautifully told story: these are the books I was lucky enough to come across as a kid when I was reading everything, indiscriminately, without regard for genre or style, and with which I fell in love – which made me fall in love with fantasy. These are the books which, quite by accident, became the measuring stick against which everything I read is held. Neil Gaiman was absolutely right. I need to find more of Gray’s work – it’s extraordinary.

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One Response to The Seventh Swan – Nicholas Stuart Gray

  1. Pingback: My review of Epiphany by Stuart Land « …At Your Fingertips

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