I had never heard of C.S.E. Cooney before I came across her name in the list of this year’s Nebula nominees. Cooney has only published her first collection of short fiction – Bone Swans – last year, and hasn’t published a full length debut (yet). The title of the Nebula nominated novella, The Bone Swans of Amandale, instantly struck a chord. Something about it stuck out. I was intrigued. If an author can come up with such a good title, there might be a pot of gold to discover. Googlegooglegloogle, and to my instant gratification I found the novella in full on the website of Cooney’s publisher (the link is here). I printed its 28.321 words (about 60 pages in a book) and started reading.
It’s fitting that Gene Wolfe wrote the introduction to the Bone Swans collection. Cooney’s novella has something of the mythic folk blend some of Wolfe’s own work has – like the stories Severian tells in the mind-boggling The Book of The New Sun, and the second story of The Fifth Head of Cerberus.
The Bone Swans of Amandale is a retelling of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, combined with a lesser known fairy tale written down by the Grimms, the pretty gruesome and bleak The Juniper Tree, and a dash of shape shifting Fairy Folk, Swan Lake and the likes. It reminded me at times of the footnotes and stories in Susanna Clarke’s brilliant slow burner Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell too. This is not an update of the Pied Piper or The Juniper Tree in a more contemporary setting, nor a simple mix of the two. This novella is very much its own thing, inventing a whole new story, in a whole new setting, with a whole new vibe.
That vibe is delicious. The tone of The Bone Swans of Amandale has to be read to be fully understood. Adjectives like poetic, humorous, original, daring, gruesome, outrageous, unsettling and even amoral all apply. The story is told by Maurice, a shape shifting rat, and his narrating is a joy to read. The story itself is off the charts too: it’s brilliant and eccentric, yet told with an ease that makes everything that happens seem as normal as normal can be. I believed it all. I didn’t even mind the one line that referred to contemporary austerity politics…
The story shares the ancient wisdom of fairy tales: characters behave as they behave because they are what they are.
But she wouldn’t. She was what she was, and behaved accordingly.
“Nicolas, did you kill her?” “I?” he asked, staring at me in that dreadfully gentle way of his. “Perhaps. It sounds like something I might do. This world is so dangerous and cruel, and I am what it makes me. But I think you’ll find she breathes.”
There is no point in blaming the witch for being a witch, nor the wolf for being a wolf. As science progresses, the fact that free will doesn’t exist is slowly becoming a cliché – yet its illusions remain hard to dispel. This is in part because even in stories like this – that at their core clearly & explicitly illustrate the non-existence of free choice – some characters do still judge or are judged. Both The Pied Piper and the ghost in the Juniper Tree want vengeance, and the three children who stand up to the villain in the story (a female ogre-giant crossbreed) are spared. Yet those 3 stood up to Ulia Gol because they couldn’t not stand up, and the children and the townsfolk that are punished didn’t, since they couldn’t – the adults are explicitly under a magic spell. Even as Cooney understands that people behave such and such because of who they are and their contexts, this doesn’t mean her characters understand themselves.
Still, this novella is more complex than fairy tales or legends. This is mainly because of the characters. With a few sentences here and a few words there, Cooney paints a mysterious back story for Nicolas – this story’s piper. He’s a sensitive personality, with a hint of tragic sadness in almost every scene he’s in. And of course there’s Maurice, that ratman whose main motivations are more visceral and sensational. Drama is his vice, and altruism moot. Still, he does love the swan princess, even though she is cold and harsh to him.
To tell more would be to spoil your fun. Go and read it already, The Bone Swans of Amandale is wholeheartedly recommended. I’ll definitely pick up the entire collection, and eagerly look forward to the full length novel Claire Cooney is grinding on.
If you didn’t click the link to the novella above, here it is again:
Also, you can read all 3 pages of that Gene Wolfe introduction on Amazon via the Look Inside function here.