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Bone Swans cover

C. S. E. Cooney’s Bone Swans collects four previously published short stories and one purpose-built novella. The book won the World Fantasy Award in 2016. Every story demonstrates solid craftsmanship, and I do not like any of them. In part this is my fault, and yet I don’t believe a mere mismatch is wholly to blame.

Four of the five pieces contain central or strong elements of romance. Where this book worked for me, it did so due to the sound execution of these arcs. I like romance. Between the fanfic and the Heyer and the Austen-repurposed-as-a-foundation-stone-of-the-modern-genre-of, I suppose I read (and write) a lot of it, really. Its rhythms are pleasing: I enjoy going to these concerts to hear songs I know and like, played with different instruments by different hands. In two of Bone Swans’s stories, I really did want Cooney’s characters to work things out and was pleased when they did so. That’s not nothing—I can remember having given that fuck to modern commercially marketed romance on startlingly few occasions. But on the whole the book’s romantic relationships—even the most compelling examples—frustrated me. I wanted an orchestra; I got a lone kazoo.

For a start, the collection’s fantastic array of worlds was depressingly, unvaryingly, historically and globally unrealistically het. The civilisation in “Martyr’s Gem” had a mechanism for being queer, which we never did see in action, but it is a bit awkward that we only hear about queerness at all because the main characters are worried about the potential murderous tendencies of a not-precisely-but-functionally-paedophilic gay man. Nice. Heat up that old chestnut on the open fire, why don’t we.

Even the hetero romances were largely based on … not a lot. “Martyr’s Gem” (in which I did root for the couple) features an unprepossessing and shy but nice guy falling head over heels for a girl he’s just met because she’s rich and hot. She’s also some other things, like “good at dancing” and “obsessed with avenging her dead sister,” but initially and primarily the guy shapes his whole emotional life around her because she is: fit. Well, okay. The leading story, “Life on the Sun,” at least features a couple who’ve known one another a good while. Even so, I could have done with a more specific description of that non-POV love interest as well. Cooney doesn’t often slow down to give us the texture of her characters’ thoughts about the people they fancy. It’s nice that these characters think their partners are hot, but I can’t see the hot people, so why should I care about a romance predicated on that? How can I ever be invested in a couple’s fate because I’m told, in a way I can’t really access, that one of them is fine? “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One” was much better on this front, but still didn’t quite come together for me on romance terms. Throughout the collection, I felt like Cooney was afraid to lean into and inhabit this genre, to pay as much attention to it as her fantasy elements—which is a bit of a shame, especially if romance is going to provide so much of the structure, affective energy, and payoff of her pieces.

This problem was worst in “The Bone Swans of Amandale,” the collection’s meatiest offering and unfortunately also probably my least favourite story. Now, you might well like this one. Sensible people do! Here is SH’s own Abigail Nussbaum nominating it for a Nebula for Best Novella:

The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C. S. E. Cooney (from The Bone Swans: Stories)—Cooney’s “Martyr’s Gem” (also included in this collection) was an unexpected delight last year, a lyrical, witty fairy tale whose fairly meat-and-potatoes plot was elevated by smart writing and engaging characters. “Bone Swans” does much the same with a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin that also incorporates elements of several other fairy tales, and features some truly interesting characters and creepy turns of plot. The narrator, a shape-changing rat named Maurice, witnesses the murder of a flock of magical swans, and bands with the survivor, Dora Rose—for whom he has for years nurtured an infatuation—to get revenge by enlisting the help of the Pied Piper. Maurice is a familiar sort of scoundrel, good-hearted but ultimately amoral and out for himself, but his relationship with Dora Rose—who pretends to be above his sort of scrounging but possesses her own capacity for ruthlessness--is interesting and complex. Best of all, however, is the Piper himself, a sort of innocent who is nevertheless capable of tremendous cruelty and damage. “The Bone Swans” is frequently funny, but it also gets at the dark, bloody origins of many fairy tales, and Cooney ensures that the combination never feels less than perfectly entertaining.

This story contained some of Cooney’s strongest images, best character creation, and sharpest writing. It is also, for reasons I cannot fathom, narrated by one of the most annoying cod-Vila-Restal fantasy stock characters I’ve run into in years. And as for his part in the romance—look, I am all for pining. I have written War in Peace wordcounts’ worth of pining. I have read Story of the Stone wordcounts’ worth of pining. But this ‘Maurice’s’ pining was some Xander Harris bullshit.

So Maurice (a rat shape-shifter) was Dora Rose’s childhood friend for a good long while, and fancied her (a swan shape-shifter—there’s something like class issues here, but passionless and vague). Maurice confessed his feelings via a grope after Dora’s family function, got nastily rebuffed by the girl and then obsessed about her for roughly a decade. He’s then helpful-but-bitchy-and-about-himself when Dora Rose’s whole family is brutally murdered and Dora’s beloved twin dies in her arms. I’m supposed to feel sorry for and like this entitled little shit who’s Still Mad his grovertures were received poorly by some fifteen-year-old child a decade ago? Who has the energy for that?

It does not help that the narrative is too lodged in Maurice to call him on his shit, that his shit is lampshaded by his constantly turning to the reader and saying “ain’t I a stinker?”—as though the act of doing so could possibly accomplish more than a controlled, Bakhtin-carnivalesque release of tension that actually reinforces the status quo—or that Maurice only likes Dora Rose because she’s pretty and sassy™ like a Marlowe novel dame. He worships her, she’s his god. For some reason. While on the subject of Maurice’s love life and the moral implications thereof, it’s not sufficiently clear whether rat-shifters think of rats as non-sentient and a functionally different species. Specifically, it is not clear whether Maurice has, in the past, fucked rats who he thinks of as having names and personalities, and then—because this is a Pied Piper retelling, among other things—facilitated a mass genocide of rats, who he has maybe fucked, because “rats love drama.” You can see why that would matter to my relationship with a character, right? Two sentences of clarification. All I needed. Just—don’t leave any room for sloppy reading, on the question of sexy-rat-sentience-genocide. You can even have this be what happened! But that will affect my reading?

I am super sure this deadbeat Jordan-Catalano-of-fantasyland type is someone’s dream date, but I would rather debate a self-identifying incel than go out to ye olde tavern with a “charming” rogue, no matter how bitchin’ his stealth stats. This whole breed of character just consists of Judd Apatow protagonists wearing Lincoln green: To All the Schlubs Who’ve Schlubbed Before. I kept wondering why this story—which had moments of grim grotesquery and at times reached towards the lyricism and mythic scope of Joy Chant—was being told through this narrator. The best parts of “Bone Swans of Amandale” felt held at a distance—a distance that seemed possibly the result of a failure of courage. What does Maurice bring to this story, and why is his contribution worth losing that immediacy and wonder, worth the sheer tedium of putting up with him? I don’t necessarily agree with the conventional wisdom that stories need a mundane POV character for audience identification, but if I did, here stand three maimed and traumatised children who refused to participate in the Hitler Youth swan-slaying troupe. Why not focus on any of them? In the end, they had more to lose and more to gain than Maurice: it was more their story.

The morality of “The Bone Swans of Amandale” was all over the place— and not in a productive way, given that morality could be considered the substance of this story. We’re told the mayoress is exercising a mesmeric supernatural sway over the townspeople, but it’s not sufficiently clear whether this and fear of her complicates the townspeople’s culpability in the mass slaughter of the swan-shifters. How much do the townspeople know about what she’s doing? Are they bespelled, and, if meaningfully so, to what degree? Is this just a fascism metaphor, here in Not Germany? Why do none of the “good” characters talk or think about this question—especially when they’re killing twenty-odd children who participated in the hunts, compelled to do so by fear of their evil supernatural mayoress or their parents or the pressure of group-think, and who present no immediate, independent threat? The gravedigger’s daughter was apparently the readiest of the child soldiers, but it’s hard not to think of both readiness to do awful work and reluctance to do it in terms of class. In a way, is the gravedigger’s daughter punished for what “normal” society already forces her to do?

I also kept thinking that the lead characters would be punished for going full I Spit On Your Magical-Self-Playing-Swan-Carcass-Instruments Grave. After all, our leads kill all the maybe-sentient rats, twenty children, the mayor and her lead patsy (both by proxy), and the babe-in-arms we see bitten by a plague rat (and presumably more townspeople are also Doomed for similar reasons). Yet the story ultimately never contemplates the protagonists’ reciprocal responsibility. It gestures towards it with the children’s fate and Dora’s new role as a reluctant mother, but Bone Swans doesn’t linger to make its signal turn say anything in particular. Clearly a story can play with moral ambiguity and dodgy actors and vengeance (hell, I love Nirvana in Fire). What is the nature of culpability in crimes against (in)humanity in democratic and/or totalitarian states? How should we achieve restitution after genocide? These can all be live, vital questions. But Cooney handles these big guns with a clumsiness that seems born of disinterest, which makes me wonder why we’re telling this story at all. If it’s for the mega-fairy-tale-crossover, Jesus, I might as well watch Infinity War.

Humour is really subjective. For Abigail this story worked on that level, and for me it didn’t. But humour that doesn’t work for a reader is as awkward as, say, a hell-realm of sad, inept clowns (I see you, “The Big Bah-Ha”). Comedy writing is a specific skillset that needs to be developed, with its own stylistic range and pros and cons. As well as the aforementioned potential for audience alienation, there are affective turns humour is likely (not certain, just likely) to undercut. Regardless of what’s on-trend at the moment, we don’t all need to write comedy, or certain styles of comedy, any more than we all need to do contouring. Cooney’s prose was very strong, but I didn’t feel the humour she frequently attempted to deploy was a source of that strength.

And yet this recounting of my overall feelings on the story does violence to all the times in the reading experience where the writing was very effective. The mayoress is excellently drawn. As Abigail suggests, the Piper is good, in a changeling, Tam Lin fashion. The description of the creation of the swan-harp is gross and chilling in all the right ways. I wish Cooney had let these moments breathe, had let them push the narrative. She made some deft craft decisions in every story, but then with every piece I also had mechanical issues so severe I do feel it’s more appropriate to call them flat problems than poor fits with my preferences (even those that could have been easily fixed, like Sexy Sentient Rat Genocide). This leads me to believe there’s something that could do with changing in the editorial process that brought these stories about, and that what we are looking at is a production pipeline problem not necessarily especially reflective of Cooney’s issues as a writer, but more of the state of the field—unfortunately easy to account for, in this scattered and cash-strapped industry. I worry that I was insufficiently attentive to some of these stories’ small details, but then what is a review—a piece of literary criticism, or a pragmatic “should you buy this?” explainer, or an affective account? Who knows (cut to: comments filled with dudes Who Know).

“Life on the Sun” and “Martyr’s Gem,” for example, both feature interesting, soundly-constructed worlds. “Life on the Sun” just didn’t nail it for me, but “Martyr’s Gem” has concrete structural flaws. The “let’s all go away on an ark” ending sat oddly with the realism of this well-developed society. I didn’t have enough of an idea as to how these characters were going to scout out new lands, why they hadn’t made preparatory voyages in smaller boats, how they’d eat on their ark, or how they proposed to settle a new landmass if they managed to find one. I mean, this isn’t a wholly fantastical conceit; Polynesians did something very similar. Why not look to their historical methods and preparations? “Pure curiosity and a spirit of adventure” is like a settler-colonial fantasy of why thinking people leave dry land. Where’s the resource scarcity? Nor did the characters abandoning the world they knew cohere for me emotionally as a response to the main couple’s problems and needs. Why is a new world so vital for these two, given that they don’t really rebel against their society but against 1) being perceived as a bit of a loser, and 2) having your sister murdered by a guy your whole society reviles for this act? Why did I sit through that ill-judged pranking scene where the protagonist earned the respect of his wife’s fratpack of brothers if he ultimately wasn’t going to live in her posh house after all? As far as the mystery plot goes, the protagonist finds out who killed his wife’s sister through entering one (1) shady tavern and noticing one (1) shady-looking dude with a Sad Story. Come on, what would John Knox say?

Cooney’s stories are often set in slightly unreal versions of our world, a decision I sometimes found frustrating. “Milkmaid” sometimes used language a little awkwardly (there really is something to be said about regionalism and the fantasy novel), but the trace of teaboo in the placename “Feisty Wold” was the apotheosis. What’s the point of Maybe England, unnamed fake-Germany, and the Muddled East? Is it just so the writer doesn’t have to be held responsible for historical research and the complications of weaving the supernatural into that? Is it about evoking the universality of fairy tales? If so, how well does this impulse mesh with a prose style developed via the realist novel, and with Cooney’s sometimes sociological plot concerns? In this and other respects, I never felt this book did enough with its fairy-tale source material. “Bone Swans” mashes a score of them together, and “Milkmaid” is a Rumplestilskin. The retellings wavered between being skilfully executed and a bit flat, even twee. But I was never surprised by their turns. Fair enough, in such a glutted market, but even an old version can feel fresh and vital if it’s well-told.

The best story in this collection is probably “The Big Bah-Ha,” which is unfortunate because, for dumb personal reasons, it’s not at all the sort of story I like. I, personally, don’t dig grim post-apocalypses, Slow Inevitable Dooms, katabasis/anabasis as a motif (most boring part of the Aeneid amirite?), low-information setups, epic Jungian “Endless” figures, child-run world scenarios that are not Robin Williams vehicle Hook or New Zealand drama The Tribe, or clowns. I often think even well-done slang-heavy Clockwork Orange affairs gain faux-depth from their linguistic efforts, which by their nature generate a lot of somewhat artificial audience buy-in, and I look on them a bit uncharitably. But for what it’s worth, this story is good at doing all these things. If you like any of them, you may well get on with it. I respect but cannot love it.

Overall, I did want more from “an award-winning collection,” yet I feel the way such glib phrases frame my expectations can be absolutely poisonous. Relatedly, I can guess exactly the marketing reasons that compelled the writer or publisher to get an SFF luminary to pen the introduction, and that also compelled said writer or publisher to back-end the book with a discussion of the writer’s privileged familiarity with the field since childhood and long association with and mentorship by said luminary. That said, I still felt really uncomfortable with these additions. I don’t need not-a-poet to tell me his Plain Man’s View that poetry should, like, scan and rhyme and stuff (gosh), and I don’t need the writer’s relative ease of access to institutional power bandied about like a credential. It’s a hard and unforgiving market and I don’t begrudge the author advantages I’d in fact rather everyone had, but considered it somewhat unfair to the writer and the work to continue reading these segments: they weren’t doing justice to either. (Hyperinflated blurb prose, likewise, puts me right off. No one can live up to this kind of pæan: hell, no one should.) I do think Cooney has a lot going for her, but reading this collection I was vexed at every turn by the aforementioned narrative snags. Even if those were attended to, I still think Cooney’s short fiction might not work for me. I do, however, think even people Cooney’s fiction does really work for might have a better time of it if we collectively looked at the publishing structures and processes that don’t just enable these snags, but almost ensure them.

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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