Sometimes I want to take Mercedes Lackey by the collar and shake her and say:
But seriously, the last couple of Mercedes Lackey books I have read have been just awful. And I've been digging pretty deeply into her catalog; The Black Swan is copyright 1999.
Here are some problems I had with the book; every time I had an issue -- and it could've been stylistic, plot, grammar, or something else -- I dog-eared a page. I don't even know how many dog-eared pages I have in this book. It's so many, I may not list them all.
- Page 25: "Bring me Uwe, the minstrel." So this guy has been around the castle for a long time. And has been quite close to the queen. So why is she telling the servants, who presumably also know him, to bring her "Uwe, the minstrel?" There's no other character named Uwe in this book, so there's no confusion as to whom the queen is referring. And it becomes obvious later from his actions that Uwe is, in fact, a minstrel. So "the minstrel" is extraneous here. (I believe he's referred to as Uwe the minstrel another time within a page or two of this instance, as well.)
- Page 31: Multiple inappropriate verbs in speaker attributions: "admonished," "complained," "broke in," and "grumbled." A couple of adverbs after "said." And a raised eyebrow. (Seriously, how many people do you know who can actually raise only one eyebrow?)
- Pages 54-55: We're treated to a description of Wolfgang's room. Even though Siegfried and Benno spend every single evening there having idiotic discussions abut things like the rules of courtly love. Which must have been included just so Lackey could show she'd done her research about the rules of courtly love. (If you're interested in that, read A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay instead.) Seriously, if you've been in a room dozens of times, unless something is dramatically different, you're not going to remark on the bit of stone that's holding the desk up or how the bed has been overtaken by books. Now, if Wolfgang had cleaned his room, that would've been worth a remark.
- Page 79: A lot of boring and irrelevant information about the weavers the queen has employed. This adds absolutely nothing to the story. I don't give a damn that the servants get a suit of clothes each year, especially since none of the servants are major characters. None of this stuff matters.
- Page 93: Again, I don't give a crap that the queen's servants sleep three to a bed. Sure, this may have been a common arrangement in medieval Europe. But you're telling us an awful lot, and showing us nothing. And the whole point of this scene to begin with was that it was difficult for lovers to find a private spot -- though this is not true of Siegfried, who has his own room. So the discussion is pointless. (If you are interested in authentic medieval history being incorporated into a novel, try The Devil's Diadem by Sara Douglass, which gets these details right without boring you by long digressions.)
- Page 160: The queen is trying to get Siegfried to do something reckless so he'll have an accident and die. Uwe suggests he can make up an ancient pagan tradition such as hunting a stag with a dagger. But Siegfried is supposed to be bookish and learned, and should know about such things. He isn't supposed to be stupid enough to be fooled by tactics like this. (He may not know how to rule, but he's well-versed in the pagan literature.)
- Page 208: Odile takes way too long to brush her hair. I've posted about this before. It simply does not take that long to brush even tangled long hair. I know this because I have long hair which frequently gets tangled.
- Page 223: "God's teeth, but it's good to have a simple repast for a change!" (Emphasis is Lackey's, not mine.) Seriously, people rarely use the word "repast" in casual conversation. This doesn't sound like something someone would actually say. (While we're on the subject of inappropriate terms, I wish Lackey would come up with something other than "leman" for mistress. Sure, technically it's appropriate, but it's just odd. My dictionary says it's archaic. It's out of place with the rest of the language of this book, too.)
- Page 239: The words "dance," "dancer," and "dancers" are used 10 times. On a single page.
On to more analysis and less nitpicking. Despite all the complaints above, The Black Swan was not nearly as irritating as the latest elemental masters book, oh, what was it called...Unnatural Issue, yeah, that's it. There weren't as many errors in The Black Swan. But this book was basically the same book as The Fire Rose (from Odile's perspective) and Firebird (from Siegfried's perspective). We have a scholarly but isolated woman with some magical talents and invisible servants who shares a house with an angry sorcerer and then we have a prince who fucks everything that moves. Oh yeah, and von Rothbart from this book is kind of like the sorcerer in Firebird whom Ilya sets himself up against -- he keeps a harem of women though he never has sex with any of them. (Though unlike Ilya, Siegfried was an actual rapist. It's kind of unbalanced, by the way, that Odette has to confess her betrayal of her father and others to Siegfried, but Siegfried never comes clean to any of his lovers about the gypsy girl he raped.)
I'm not even going to talk about the rape; the Amazon reviewers do that justice (basically, none of them think Siegfried has done enough to repent afterwards -- his change of heart isn't believable).
So apparently this book shares a plot with Swan Lake and I'll admit it, I don't know the plot of that ballet but the Amazon reviewers seem to think Lackey is pretty true to the story. Fine. But Lackey has this problem of taking a fairy tale and expanding it to fill a whole book. Only, there isn't enough material for a whole book. So Lackey inserts a philandering prince who thinks all the time about which maid he'll screw next and where he'll do it, but oh, he falls in love and changes his ways, and then there are a bunch of boring details about the world (e.g. how servants get their clothes, how swans don't feel the cold in the water) and long descriptions of rooms that our characters have been in dozens -- if not hundreds -- of times before. And long lists of all the people who have showed up for a hunt and what kind of birds they have and how well-trained they (the birds) are, and it's just ON AND ON about things that don't matter one bit to the story.
Another thing this book suffered from is the choice of perspective. Odile is the POV character for a good part of the book, but she's not the one intended for the prince -- Odette is. And we know virtually nothing about Odette, because we've never been inside her mind. It's an odd choice, and not, I think, the best one, as far as storytelling effect goes. Also, oddly, while we often see into Lackey's villains' minds, and we see Clothilde's plans here, we never once understand von Rothbart's motives, because Lackey notably stays away from him as a POV character. And I'm really not sure why. It's remarkable for being so different from everything else she's written. (Though sometimes all Lackey's one-dimensional villains seem to do is think of more and more evil things to inflict upon their adversaries. At least Clothilde isn't as comical and one-dimensional as Susanne's father from Unnatural Issue or du Mond from The Fire Rose.)
What else...Lackey is oddly fixated on being able to read Greek and Latin and being familiar with ancient pagan literature as marks of learning. Doesn't matter whether the setting is San Francisco during the heyday of the railroads, or medieval Europe. The characters like to brag to themselves about how they've read Sappho or Aristophanes or whatever, and about how other people should recognize them for their great minds, and all this junk. It would be like me sitting around thinking, "OMG, I've read Plato and Aristotle. I'm so smart. I deserve a cookie and a pat on the head." (Full disclosure: I have read Plato and Aristotle -- in English translations. I remember very little of either. But Aristotle's The Politics is good reading if I have insomnia. Puts me right out. I keep a copy by my bedside for that very purpose.)
Lackey's characters are also oddly fixated with class, including the nobles thinking they're better than everyone else. Now, maybe this was a realistic attitude for the time. But it makes her characters much less sympathetic to the contemporary reader than if they were a little more egalitarian in their leanings.
If you want to know more about the story, just take some of the names I've included here and insert them into this poem: Write Your Own Mercedes Lackey Book.
In the end, I don't really have anything nice to say about this book. Did I finish it? Yes. Would I recommend it? Most definitely not. I will never read anything by Mercedes Lackey again, in fact.
For me, thankfully, it's on to something better -- my out-of-genre project for June. But more on that later.