Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a long, intimidating book that starts off really grim, with a nuclear apocalypse killing hundreds of millions of people, and scorching the skies. I'm glad I listened to all of the people who praised it, though, and kept going. The payoff is well worth getting through the depressing start.
While the book never states the year it's taking place, it's clearly an alternate 1987. There are too many cultural markers tying it to that time in US history. This version of 1987 has the cold war escalating rather than fizzling out, and culminating in the launch of every nuclear device on the planet. Many hit their targets, but many fall out of the sky to wreak havoc on US soil. There are survivors, but most are badly burned, and they have to scrabble to find food and potable water, not to mention a reason to keep going.
Within this category of survivors are Colonel James P. Macklin, Roland Croninger, Sue Wanda (Swan) Prescott, Josh Hutchins, and a bag lady on the streets of Manhattan who goes by Sister Creep. Each character has their own struggles in the post-apocalyptic landscape, and the book paints the aftermath in their personal conflicts. Meanwhile, there's an unnamed man often referred to as The Man with the Scarlet Eye who can shift his appearance at will, create fire from his hands, and make people do his bidding. He revels in pain and death and corruption, and makes it his life's mission to stomp out what little hope humanity has left after the events that end the world.
This book is often compared to The Stand, and it's a fair comparison. End of the world, good versus evil, and there's a personification of the devil walking around. The differences don't end with the causes of the end of the world, though. Swan is a far more sympathetic perspective character than Mother Abigail, and The Man with the Scarlet Eye is a much more sinister force than Randall Flagg. He doesn't simply amass a force; he insinuates himself into the very souls of the survivors, so that even good people are led to do terrible things, never realizing the evil of their actions. I also felt that Swan Song has a greater grasp on human nature. What separates "good" from "evil" characters is how corrupted they are, and many characters reform once they have a reason to hope.
In the end, Swan Song is about the endurance of the human spirit, and how we adapt to even the most trying situations. The message is that life is worth living, so long as we're alive, and that there's always something to hope for. Even in the most hopeless and bleak moments within Swan Song, the characters can find beauty.
I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Tom Stechschulte. He has an authoritative sound, well worth the gravity in this book. He also has a good range of accents, so no two characters sounded alike.
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