The Black Swan
Mercedes Lackey is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read most of her work and enjoyed it immensely, except for this book. It is presented in almost a fairy tale manner (considering it is based on the story the ballet Swan Lake itself was based on, that’s not surprising). While fairy tales engage the reader from the start, for this one I felt as though I’d missed the boat somewhere along the way. It was only in the last third of the story that I could get over my distaste of most of the characters and sympathize with any of their difficulties.
Odile, the sorceress daughter of the powerful magician, Baron von Rothbart, has been under her father’s influence for the whole of her life. She lives for the moment that he will be proud of her accomplishments in magic. The Baron uses Odile to care for the needs and safety of the Swan Maidens when he is not around, which is quite often.
The Baron, (who was obviously been betrayed by a woman at some point) has made it his life’s mission to seek out women who have betrayed the men in their lives in some way. Using the form of an owl, he hunts them down and captures them, removing them to his estate. There they will spend the rest of their lives repenting their sins, living as swans during the day and only becoming women by the light of the moon. No rank of women are immune to the punishment, peasants and princesses are all transformed.
Princess Odette, the proclaimed Queen of the Swan Maidens, has accepted a bargain offered by von Rothbart for the freedom of the Swan Maidens. If she can obtain a true declaration of love and a pledge of lifetime fidelity from a man who knows her sins and her true nature, she and the other maidens will have repented their sins and be free from Rothbart’s spell.
Prince Siegfried, a carousing, selfish, and immature young man, is (unbeknownst to Odette) von Rothbart’s choice to fulfill the bargain. Siegfried, whose mother is Queen Clothilde, is about to assume the throne on his 18th birthday. His mother has made sure that Siegfried is unfit to rule by encouraging him to be boorish, selfish, uncaring, and bored by matters of state. She is determined that he will rule only over her dead body. She manipulates him and various situations in order to prevent his coronation.
The characters in this story were extremely unlikable. Odile was spineless for most of the book, and every time a spark of anger developed that was directed at her father, she made pithy excuses to herself to discount his evil nature. She finally overcomes this through circumstances forced on her by her father and her friendship with the Swan Maidens, especially Odette.
Clothilde and Rothbart are hideous, truly disgusting characters. Which they are supposed to be, however, the reader is not given any real reasons for their horrid behavior. Siegfried’s character is almost as bad in the beginning. He came very close to being an unredeemable character. Even after he makes some life changes and adjusts his attitudes somewhat, I found it shallow and unbelievable that, after one glimpse of Odette, he fell in love and was willing to commit to her for life.
The setting is also a departure for the author. I finally surmised through descriptions and character names that the setting of the book was Germany or Austria during the middle ages. The characters all had a firm belief in God and the church that seemed at odds with the magic present throughout the story. The book improved late in the story and resulted in a satisfactory, fairy tale ending, however, I do not plan on reading it again. My advice is to admire the extremely gorgeous cover, but read it at the library or wait until the paperback is released. If you’ve never read Mercedes Lackey before, this is not the best novel to showcase this author’s incredible talents. Try one of her Valdemar novels, or The Fire Rose, some of my personal favorites instead.