Hardcover, 384 pages
Published September 20th 2016 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
“Drowning is quiet.
The thing itself, quiet. There is thrashing, shouting, reaching for any solid thing, but that comes first, and it is not part of drowning. Once there is water in you, once the liquid touches the feathery interior of the lungs–once that happens, things are quiet.”
You may not want to read this review if you haven’t yet read The Scorpion Rules. The Swan Riders is a direct sequel to that one and really, this book won’t make much sense to you if you haven’t read the first in the series. Okay. Now that I have that out of the way, let’s talk about this book.
First of all, if you have yet to read an Erin Bow novel (what are you doing, seriously? The lady has written some very excellent books!), you will not know that she breaks your heart as a matter of course. You all should know that I dislike sad books but Erin’s stories are somehow so beautifully told that you find embracing your heartbreak. Okay, I’m lying. Usually it’s just a little…
But really, her stories are beautifully told and demand to be read and okay, I will now talk about The Swan Riders.
In The Scorpion Rules (SPOILER ALERT, STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE FIRST BOOK), the protagonist Greta Gustafsen, crown princess of a big chunk of Canada (there was an apocalypse), became an AI just like Talis! Talis is…well…some would say Evil Overlord only he is not? I mean, not truly. Can you be half evil?
He is not evil at all and if you read the first book, you should know that. He’s just not very in touch with his human feelings. Maybe because he is not very human. He used to be a lot of time has passed since he was able to feel and embrace feeling. 500 years, to be exact. Anyway, in The Swan Riders we get to see in intimate detail the AIs’ power structure, their base of operations, and the humans who serve them, that is, the titular Swan Riders. We meet some really interesting characters of whom Francis Xavier, FX for short, is my favourite.
See, Swan Riders are the soldiers of the AIs, the bodies who execute the decisions made by the AIs. Greta has known them as the executioners who killed her friends, her fellow future rulers. She didn’t feel too kindly for them in the beginning but well, that was before she turned into an AI and lost a hold on the feeling thing.
Anyway, the Swan Riders are surgically equipped with an ability to become vessels of the AIs, specifically Talis who ‘rides’ these Riders often, as in possesses them often. What this does to these Swan Riders, all of whom are very very young (Swan Riders usually don’t have the chance to grow old) is horrific but Talis doesn’t seem to know. Until things happen and he does. Oh does he ever.
This book is intense. Full of high stakes and particularly hair raising in certain scenes. Erin Bow gives you characters you will root for–Sri, FX, Greta, Elian and Talis. Particularly Talis who is shown in two different ways which is all I can say without giving things away. The romances are sweet and heartbreaking (yes, this is a theme). Greta’s longing for Xie is poignant and I wonder if there is a third book where this longing will be fulfilled. Elian and Greta’s relationship and most compelling Greta and Talis/Michael’s relationship. Forgive me, I’m not really capable of full sentences just right now.
The Swan Riders asks what it means to be human and how to continue being human when you do not have a heart or a brain or anything that defines a human being. How to retain humanity when all your human parts have long become dust?
The book does attempt to answer this question and personally I felt that the answer was beautiful.
So yeah, this book will make you feel feelings and perhaps require a tissue box or two dozen but it should be read. It most definitely should be read. For Talis. For Elian, Greta, Sri, Rachel, and of course, FX.
“History will be kind to me,” said Talis softly. “I intend to write it.”
“Oooo,” chimed Evie. “It’s quoting time! Winston Churchill.”
“Or a common paraphrase thereof,” said Azriel.
Talis attempted a sour sideways look, which was hard because he had no eye sockets. “Who but an AI would look that up?”
“Everybody, if you use your quotey voice,” said Evie.
“I don’t have a quotey voice.”
“You do,” said Evie. “You definitely have a quotey voice.”
“I just blew up Manila, Evangeline. Could we–I don’t know–have a minute of silence or something?”
“Sure!” said Evie.
Exactly 60.00 seconds passed.
“Your quotey voice kind of turns down at the end. Like the opposite of questions.”