Like Snakes On a Plane, to which it bears a close formal resemblance, the title Swans Over the Moon is neat; transparent; unambiguous. Agreed, attached to a poem of the 1890's, it might perhaps have meant that the swans were high in the sky and the moon was low, and that the poet—W. B. Yeats, for instance—who stood on the dim shore of the twilight lake watching the one cross the other had sorrowful meditations to offer on the transitory nature of time, or life, or fidelity, if not all three. There again, as the title of a footballer's memoir, Swans Over the Moon could certainly tell of the exultation of his team, which is to say Swansea City, after some season of triumph (and stand in opposition to the account of their subsequent collapse, necessarily called Swans Sick as a Parrot).
Nevertheless, appearing as a literal construction on the cover of a volume of fantastic fiction, Swans Over the Moon unquestionably denotes a romantic example of the genre, poetic rather than narrative; idealized, transcendental, even: a work of high fancy, if you will. Very likely the story will prize paradox over logic; a sense of wonder over any other kind of sense. Probably there won't be many jokes in it. And so it proves. In this first novel—novella, really, lavishly spaced, leaded and interleaved—by anthologist and short-story writer Forrest Aguirre, there are indeed swans on the moon: actual feathered and beaked ones, not to mention copious representations of them in painting and architecture and even as ornaments on the armour of Judicar Parmour Pelevin, monarch of Procellarium.
Procellarium is a country on Aguirre's moon, as Oceanus Procellarum is a region on ours. Craters called Euler and Delisle are mentioned, the Agricola Mountains and Mons Vinogradov. Presumably, despite the swans and the monarchs, it's the same moon, or a closely parallel one. It's not clear. It doesn't matter.
Aguirre's moon has an atmosphere, something for the monarchs to breathe and the swans to fly through, though life is confined to "mere crater-pockets of bare subsistence" (p. 11). "The Judicar and his Procellarian knights appeared to ride on a glowing wave of hooves as they crossed that once-fertile plain, laid desolate, along with the rest of the moon some millenia [sic] ago by industrialization, massive over-farming, and environmental reckless-ness [sic]" (p. 11). Even desolation, apparently, goes by degrees. Procellarium still produces enough roses to bury all of its subjects who die in battle, who are many when the Judicar falls out, Learlike, with his three untrustworthy daughters; while Procellarium's northern enemies, the Scaramouche, sport masks made of ebony or even ivory, so the environmentally reckless must still be enjoying a bit of latitude. Presumably. By contrast, the planet that Aguirre's moon orbits doesn't seem to support life; or if it does, it's not mentioned, though the planet itself often is, hanging overhead in its huge blue green and whiteness. Maybe this is a far, far future, à la Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe. Maybe not. It doesn't matter.
What matters is that Forrest Aguirre has the chance to play with his favourite things, which is to say images, like the image of swans over the moon: images rococo or gothic or oneiric or absurd. The blank-masked Scaramouche also favour long flintlock muskets, long artificial noses, and top hats four feet high. On a high white bluff overlooking the battlefield, two hundred Procellarian women sit in wicker chairs watching the excitement through brass telescopes. They take tea, with biscuits, while diminutive servants fan the lunar dust from them with palm fronds. Images—yes, images Aguirre loves, but also, even more so, words. He loves to play with words. He loves to throw them up in the air and see how they sparkle; and if he doesn't quite manage to catch them all on the way down, that doesn't matter either, because they sparkle so much. Look! Look! Anfractuous! Tourbillon! Lich! Pick a sentence, any sentence. "The horrisonant clatter of rioters wafted up from the city streets" (p. 106). "Their ignominious departure from Euler was the antithesis of their stately arrival" (p. 67). "Beneath the blood-tinged churning bath water lay a carving of a darkened crater, its gaping maw black and all-consuming, an abyss" (p. 38). Now, let's see if we've got that, shall we? A carving of a crater, which one might call a maw, not a mere mouth, evidently, but a maw, and what it does is gape, and it's black, because it's a darkened crater, right? So, it's a black maw gaping so as to consume things, no, not just things but everything, "all"—and (just in case we're still at all uncertain on the point) also, it's an abyss. If less is more, as Dr Frasier Crane once memorably averred, think how much more more would be!
In the dazzling sparkle of the verbiage, how can it matter that Aguirre believes that "to ardor" is a verb, or that he can describe glee as "maladorous" [again, sic]? It doesn't matter at all! Other orthographical curios ("obesiance," "guantlet," "aqualine") might very well be misprints, as the opera glasses inlaid with "mother-of-pear" surely are; though it does seem regrettable to stick an extra u into Sepulchral while giving it prominence by making it the only word in a paragraph, the third of five consecutive one-word paragraphs. (The other four are Lifeless, Sterile, Pallid, and Emaciated, if you're interested. I knew you would be.)
In his appended note "About the Author" (p. 113), Aguirre says he spurns the advice given by Rich Horton in the Locus review of his collection The Butterfly Artist, to the effect that he "could benefit from disciplining the wilder flights of his imagination a bit." Actually, I don't know that I agree with Horton. Maybe the short stories are another question, but it seems to me, on the horrid evidence to hand, that wildly flying imagination is all Aguirre's got. He certainly can't tell a story, or create a character, or describe a landscape, or evoke a mood, or even write a functional English sentence, half the time, without tripping over his own vocabulary. Still, as self-indulgences go, Swans Over the Moon is not so outrageous. There aren't many more than twenty thousand words in the thing, even if most of them are the wrong ones. But the images—the mad, crazy ideas that boil out Aguirre's head—the Tim-Burtonesque Scaramouche, shuffling and tangling in their ranks like blackened matchsticks shaken in a box; the Judicar's daughter draped in scarves and veils that are constantly rearranged by her attendants, the cherubic ghosts of unbaptized infants; the Judicar's retinue, his two-headed counsellor, his carriage borne and drawn by pygmies with their eyelids sewn shut for fear of seeing his glory; the gateway to the Barony of Euler, an immense stone arch carbuncled with tens of thousands of flaming candles—these things, these daft, exorbitant, impossible, barely imaginable things: these are things to treasure, things well worth having, even if getting at them through the barbed-wire prose is such agony. Maybe Aguirre will learn. Maybe, with time and practice, he'll improve. If not, maybe he'll think about getting someone else to write his wild imaginings down for him, or put them on film. Maybe Tim Burton, in fact.
Once upon a time Colin Greenland was one of Britain's favourite authors of SF and fantasy. Then he was carried off by fairies to slave for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A late story has sneaked out in Interfictions, the Small Beer Press anthology. His favourite colour is blue.
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