Bone Swans, by C.S.E. Cooney
Posted September 27, 2015on:
Bone Swans, stories by C.S.E. Cooney
published July 2015
where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Mythic Delirium Books!)
Gene Wolfe wrote the introduction to Bone Swans, and describes her writing style simply as “pure Cooney”. He then offers a challenge to any reader of this collection: to define “pure Cooney”.
The tl;dr version of this review is my answer to Mr. Wolfe’s challenge:
Claire Cooney’s writing style is lyrical, playful, poetic, and gleeful. It reflects the pure joy she gets from the act of storytelling. You know that look on a child’s face when they’re telling you a new joke they’ve learned? they get this “boy are you gonna love this!” look on their face? You almost don’t want to hear the end of the joke, because you want that child to be that happy forever. that look on their face? That moment is what Cooney writes. You don’t want the story to end, because you don’t want that feeling of gleefulness to end. To sweeten the deal, she writes prose that begs to be read outloud, offers up word plays and alliterations, and her metaphors shamelessly flirt with the literal. This is prose that would tap out it’s own rhythm if given a set of drums or a page of staff paper. The greatest trick Cooney ever played is convincing the world that storytelling like this is easy.
However, these are not gleeful or happy stories. Yes, they are poetic, playful, and witty and darkly humorous, but they are not happy. These are stories of revenge, human sacrifice, a side of fairy tales even darker than Grimm’s, and the damn fucking creepiest version of an afterlife (if that’s even what it was) that I have ever seen. Cooney seems to return over and over to a theme of “you can’t escape what you are”. How does someone who oozes joyfulness write this dark, disturbing violence? Let me show you:
I’d thought to leave “The Bone Swans of Amandale” (2015, original to this collection) until the end of this review, but no, imma tell you about this story first, because it is my favorite. Among other things, Cooney plays around with tone and narrative voice a lot in this story. Told from the point of view of Maurice the Rat, this is a tragic fairy tale mashup of ill-fated love, jealous monsters, a psychologically shattered magician, and a very snobby swan princess. And damn did I love Maurice’s narrative voice. A monster is hunting the Swans of Amandale. Maurice saves Dora Rose, the last Swan of her bevy, and he knows a guy who might be able to help her out. What kept me chuckling throughout this story was Maurice and his view of the world. He’s a rat – he’ll eat and smell anything, he’s got a flirty, dirty mind set on reproduction and survival (in that order), he remembers everything, and he is eternally forgiving of how badly Dora Rose treats him. Doesn’t hurt that he’s got a huge crush on her. Even the monster who is killing the swans for her own gain doesn’t quite understand the magic she’s abusing, but Maurice’s shy magician friend Nicolas knows, because he remembers when the haunted tree’s nursery rhyme was a prayer to a god who was once a ghost who was once a little boy. He remembers because he was there. I can’t tell you who Nicolas is, because that would wreck everything, but let’s just say Maurice sacrifices more than he should for Dora Rose’s sake. Even though he knows what she gets out of the deal isn’t anything close to what she hoped for. Seriously? this was a fucking gorgeous story. Also? super fun metaphors, word plays, and almost alliterations, so many of my favorite things. You will laugh, even though the story is super tragic. A lot of times I say “right away I wanted to read it again!”, and then I don’t, because, well, there’s a stack of books on my table that look more interesting. Not so on this one. I read it again, because I didn’t want to be reading anything else. There is this line, it’s this tiny little almost nothing of a sentence, where Maurice is responding to something Nicolas did – something about swimming. And oh God, that line just destroyed me, because I knew what Maurice was willing to do for Dora Rose. And I knew that she wouldn’t fucking care. She’d never thank him. And he was OK with that. Maurice broke my heart with that line. And I’d just been laughing on the previous page. How dare I laugh, when this was right around the corner? So, yeah. I think I’ve read this story like four times now.
Written in a completely different tone, yet touching on a similar “you can’t run from who you are” idea, is the opener of the collection, “Life on the Sun” (First published in Black Gate, 2013). Kantu and her mother have been happily living with the Bird People. There is a lot of slang and dialect in this story, it gives the story a fun, almost crunchy texture (that’s a good thing, btw). When the Bird People’s village is attacked, Kantu has to come to terms with her heritage. She’s been hiding and running from her birthright all this time, to the demise of those who need her. But in the long run, waiting 20 years was the best thing she could have done. Everything is leading up to this horribly tragic ending for Kantu, and then it becomes all brightness, and is actually rather cheerful at the end. So, I’ve wrecked the final scene by telling you it’s not tragic, but is it really a spoiler if I didn’t tell you what exactly happens to Kantu?
For more of the disturbing and uncategorizable read of your life, read “The Big Bah-Ha” (First published in 2011, Drollerie Press). A disease has swept the planet, killing everyone over the age of puberty. Gangs of children roam the world, and Beatrice is the leader of the Barka gang. She ensures the other kids are fed and clothed, and don’t go too close to the hungry creatures at the edge of the gravy yard. When Beatrice dies, she finds herself in the Big Bah-Ha. A deeply skewed sort-of clown heaven, everyone here does what clowns love doing: making balloon animals, driving clown cars around, chuckling all the time, and various other classic clown activities. It’s a really freakin’ creepy disturbing place, even if you like clowns. Beatrice’s friends back home make a deal with cannibalistic monster, the Flabberghast, to try to rescue her. Turns out the Flabberghast has been waiting for an opportunity just like this to come around, and he’s been running out of children. This story is violent, tragic, and I found it very disturbing. It was like a scab I couldn’t stop picking at. I didn’t want to read it, because it made me feel like my center of gravity kept shifting around, but I couldn’t stop reading it.
Rounding out the collection is “How the Milkmaid With the Crooked One”, and “Martyr’s Gem”, both which originally appeared in GigaNotoSaurus in 2013. The first is a beautifully reimagined version of Rumpelstiltskin, with a fractured fairy tale style yet very satisfying twist, and “Martyr’s Gem” revolves around arranged marriages, revenge, and the truth behind cultural myths. I’d tell you lots of about both of these, but i need to leave you something to discover on your own, don’t I?
Looking for a collection that will knock your socks off? This is it. For those of you who rarely read short fiction, you probably shouldn’t start here. Because if you do, you’ll assume all short fiction is this good, and you’ll forever be describing other author’s collections as “decent, but not as good as that Cooney one”.