C. S. E. Cooney – Bone Swans

I knew well before picking this up that I would love this book. Its description and marketing pushed so many of my buttons that there was no way around it. Fairytale retellings, beautiful language, a Kay Nielsen cover… turns out, it’s easy to bait me if you’ve got the right buzz words. It’s also easy to turn me into a fan if you write like Cooney. May the gushing begin.

bone swans

BONE SWANS
by C.S.E. Cooney

Published by: Mythic Delirium Books, 2015
Paperback: 224 pages
Story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: That was the day the sky went dark.

A swan princess hunted for her bones, a broken musician and his silver pipe, and a rat named Maurice bring justice to a town under fell enchantment. A gang of courageous kids confronts both a plague-destroyed world and an afterlife infested with clowns but robbed of laughter. In an island city, the murder of a child unites two lovers, but vengeance will part them. Only human sacrifice will save a city trapped in ice and darkness. Gold spun out of straw has a price, but not the one you expect.

World Fantasy Award winner Ellen Kushner has called Cooney’s writing “stunningly delicious! Cruel, beautiful and irresistible.” BONE SWANS, the infernally whimsical debut collection from C. S. E. Cooney, gathers five novellas that in the words of Andre Norton Award winner Delia Sherman are “bawdy, horrific, comic, and moving-frequently all at the same time.” Cooney’s mentor, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Gene Wolfe, proclaims in his introduction that her style is so original it can only be described as “pure Cooney,” and he offers readers a challenge: “Try to define that when you’ve finished the stories in this book.”

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Since this collection of novellas has absolutely blown my mind, I will have to say a little bit about each of the stories featured. The one thing they have in common is Cooney’s lyrical language, although her tone shifts effortlessly from snarky first-person narration to sinister third person post-apocalyptic tones. Her prose isn’t flowery but there is an underlying poetry to every story. And although I preferred some stories over the rest (as with any collection), I enjoyed every single one of them, their diversity, their originality, and the way they were told.

Life on the Sun

This first story was my least favorite of this collection. That doesn’t mean I disliked it, just that what came after blew me away so much that a few flying carpets, a prophecy, and the fantastic world-building of “Life on the Sun” paled in comparison. This story started strange, took a twist that made me believe I knew where it was going, and then twisted again to take me by surprise. I loved how the readers don’t know very much of what’s going on – there is a war and a prophecy and did I mention flying carpets? It’s a great tale, well-rounded with a satisfying ending. But I enjoyed this in a more distant way, if that makes sense.

The Bone Swans of Amandale

Now here’s where it gets going. A mash-up retelling of “The Juniper Tree”, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, and “The Swan Maiden”, this story shines not only because it utilises several fairy tales and makes something quite new out of them, but also because of the voice. Maurice, a rat who can change his shape, narrates a tale of blood rites and evil mayors and a broken piper. To tell you anything about the plot (other than its fairy tale inspirations) would be telling too much. But Maurice’s voice made for a delightful read, especially when faced with truly horrible things. Dark stuff happens in this story but Maurice, being a rat, and one in love/lust with Dora Rose (a swan princess) at that, manages to keep you smiling through it all. Whenever things may look bad, he makes an obscene comment that will make you chuckle. Another thing that surprised me was how well-drawn all the characters were, even ones that don’t say very much. The piper, who is a bit of a mystery, grew dear to me, and even Dora Rose, in all her aloofness (swans just are that way), became more and more likable. I loved everything about this story and would gladly have read a novel-length version of it.

Martyr’s Gem

Here’s another story that blew my mind. A complete departure from the familiar fairy tale style of “Bone Swans”, this is a tale of revenge, murder, family, and story telling. Shursta is chosen to marry Hyrryai, the beautiful daughter of the most powerful family on their island. Shursta, not being special in any way, soon finds out why he of all people was chosen as he learns Hyrryai’s secret.
This story – which is much shorter than “The Bone Swans of Amandale” packs so much world-building and character development that I could write a whole novel about it. The world-building creeps up on you as you are fed bits and pieces of mythology throughout the story. I loved discovering little snippets of history and lore without any info dumps. It simply came up naturally in the story.
The characters were breathtaking! Shursta is a wonderful protagonist, but it was his sister Sharrar who stole my (and everybody else’s) heart. A natural story teller, she manages to enthrall a room with her voice and there is one lovely scene in this story where she does just that. Reading it felt like being there.
But most touching about this story was probably the way it portrays a chosen family. Shursta and Sharrar are siblings and very close, but they bond with others and create a whole new, bigger family that feels so natural and right that it almost hurt. Again, no spoilers about the plot, but the ending – again – was spot on.

How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain With the Crooked One

This was my favorite story of the bunch! Told by Gordie, a milkmaid who really enjoys being a milkmaid and taking care of her cow and bull, it is the tale of how her drunken father’s boast gets her into a lot of trouble. He may well say she can spin straw into gold but Gordie, not a drop of magical blood in her, certainly has no idea how to accomplish that feat. And we are right in the middle of a Rumplestiltskin retelling, the likes of which I have never read!
Drawing on mythology as much as the fairy tale, Cooney introduces Fey characters to help our practical heroine along the way. An ugly, crooked little man magics that straw into gold in exchange for the few trinkets of value Gordie possesses. But much more is going on. The kingdom is at war, both with the Fey lands and with itself. And apart from doing the straw-into-gold-trick, Gordie has to figure out an ancient secret.
Again, it was the combination of great storytelling and brilliant voice that made me love this so much. Gordie is absolutely lovable. She curses people, she rhymes by accident, she shows kindness where few others would… and mixed into the best version of Rumplestiltskin ever is even a beautiful romance. I had to take a break from the collection after this because the story gave me a major hangover. My heart!

The Big Bah-Ha

A very strange tale that reads more like horror than fantasy, this takes place in a world where a mysterious plague, the slap-rash, has killed all adults and will take children as soon as they grow too old. In this bleak place, gangs of children fight for survival. Except Beatrice, who has just woken up dead in The Big Bah-Ha, a sort of afterlife that is supposed to make you laugh. It’s a true nightmare, if you ask me, filled with clowns and circus attractions, but twisted and sad and horrifying, all of them. While Beatrice navigates this weird world, her gang seeks help from the mysterious Flabberghast (that is SUCH a cool name for a character, I just can’t get over it!).  Adventure ensues and each character can show their talents, but the Flabberghast totally steals everyone’s show.
Putting this story after “How the Milkmaid…” makes it hard for me to rate it fairly. It took me a bit longer to get into “The Big Bah-Ha”, simply because I didn’t want to let go of Gordie just yet, but once I found my footing – much like Beatrice – I was all in for this sinister, weird story about a strange sort of afterlife.

If I had to rank all the novellas/novelettes in this collection, my list would look like this:

  1. How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain With the Crooked One
  2. The Bone Swans of Amandale
  3. Martyr’s Gem
  4. The Big Bah-Ha
  5. Life on the Sun

But it must be said, that even my least favorite story was still a great read. I cannot wait to discover more of Cooney’s writing. You can always tell when writers are also poets – there is just a particular kind of melody to their prose and every word feels carefully chosen to fulfill its purpose, but to also sound beautiful. I am completely blown away by the author’s talent and imagination. In about 40 pages per story, she manages to draw up entire worlds, filled with real people, histories, mythologies, and stories. Cooney goes on a shelf with my Cat Valente and Angela Slatter books – that should tell you just how much I have fallen in love with her writing.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to Perfection!

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To get you all hooked as well, here’s where you can read the stories (or excerpts thereof) for free online:

 

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5 thoughts on “C. S. E. Cooney – Bone Swans

  1. Redhead says:

    I hit send too quick.

    I have no words for the amazingness that is The Bone Swans of Amandale. Everytime I think about Maurice wanting to go swimming *right now *, i just break into a million pieces. If you like Cooney (and I know you do!), look for a short story called “The Book of May”, its in the most recent Clockwork Phoenix anthology.

    Like

    • Dina says:

      Aaaah, I had no idea she was in that anthology. I have Clockwork Phoenix 5 right here AND a long weekend ahead of me. I know what I’ll be doing after I get home from work today. 🙂

      Like

        • Dina says:

          So I read the Book of May… I am gutted! You did warn me but man, that was beautiful and sad and uplifting and devastating, all at the same time. Thanks so much for the recommendation. 🙂

          Like

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