Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: The Swan Kingdom, by Zoe Marriott (ninth review for The 2012 TBR Pile Reading Challnge)

Here's my ninth review for this
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Title: The Swan Kingdom
Author: Zoe Marriott
Format: Trade Paperback, 263 pages
Publisher: Walker Books
Published: March 5, 2007
Genre: YA Fantasy
Literary Awards: Cybils Award (2008), YALSA Popular Paperbacks (2010)

Goodreads Synopsis

When Alexandra’s mother is slain by an unnatural beast, shadows fall on the once-lush kingdom. Too soon the widowed king is entranced by a cunning stranger — and in one chilling moment Alexandra’s beloved brothers disappear, and she is banished to a barren land. Rich in visual detail, sparked by a formidable evil, and sweetened with familial and romantic love, here is the tale of a girl who discovers powerful healing gifts — and the courage to use them to save her ailing kingdom.

One look at this gorgeous cover was enough to get me interested in this book!  That interest increased when I read the above synopsis on Goodreads.  When I received the book in the mail and looked it over, I realized that this novel is a retelling of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, titled "The Wild Swans".  The retellings I'm most familiar with are those of The Phantom of the Opera, which is not a fairy tale, but a 19th-century novel written by the French author, Gaston Leroux.  In the case of that particular book, I found the retellings to be much more engaging than the original novel.  In the case of Andersen's fairy tale, the retelling is, I think, just as wonderful as the original, although it departs markedly from the story as presented by Andersen.  It also contains some deeper elements not included in the original version.

Princess Alexandra has three brothers, instead of the original eleven of the fairy tale.  The evil stepmother is very much present, but in Marriott's hands, the story has become so much more -- it is a tale of female power, earth power, as the fertility of the lands of two neighboring kingdoms is linked to this power.

Alexandra's mother is 'a cunning woman', which is the term used in the novel for a healer and practitioner of folk magic.  This term, according to Wikipedia, was common mostly in southern England, the Midlands, and Wales, in the 15th and 16th centuries.  These people were also called 'wise women'.  According to the same source, there were also 'cunning men', but in The Swan Kingdom, it is the women who hold the greater power.  

Alexandra loves and admires her mother, who is able to heal those who are ill, and perform what are known as 'Great workings'.  Lady Branwen is widely sought for her expertise in healing, especially when nothing else has worked.  She draws her power from the currents of life -- 'the enaid' -- that ebb and flow across the land.  She also teaches her daughter to perform 'small workings', as well as herb and plant lore. 

Early in the novel, Marriott contrasts gentle Lady Branwen with her somewhat distant, harsh husband, a man who is blind to the beauty of his wife's powers, a man who thinks of the land as something he owns.  There are hints that their marriage is not a happy one.

Everything changes shortly after Lady Branwen's death, when Alexandra's father finds an enchanting young woman in the forest, during one of his hunts for the strange beast that had killed his wife.  Alexandra and her brothers watch in horror as this woman twists everyone to her will, making a puppet of their father, whom she soon marries.

Soon thereafter, the whole tale begins to unfold as Alexandra's quest is revealed.  She must somehow destroy this woman who is not only bent on destroying her family, but her beloved kingdom, as well....

Marriott transports us to the lands of her tale with a prose style that is lyrical, mesmerizing.  Here's an enthralling sample:  "The claustrophobic darkness of the forest, the looming shadows and the creature that moved among them disappeared; a screaming, flailing wind seemed to tear them away, and thrust another landscape into their place."  This style harks back to the classics, to the times when the sounds and rhythms of language were as important as the story and the characters.  Marriott weaves a spell of her own with her beautiful, descriptive sentences, and therein lies much of the charm of this novel.

As the tale unfolds, we discover a rich panorama of magic, as Alexandra becomes acquainted with the Circle of Ancestors, on a lonely faraway island.  Her powers grow as she becomes more and more attuned to the land, as she also strives to become her own person.  She will never bow to Zella's will, as her father and most of his subjects have.  Neither will her brothers, whom she must save, while she ironically waits and hopes for their return from a strange exile. 

This is a coming of age story, as well as a tale of rivalry for magical power.  Alexandra, having taken her mother's place, must battle against the evil Zella, against the slow death she has brought upon the land and its people.  Instead of bloody battles fought with sword and lance, this novel details a battle of wills.  One must emerge as victor, totally vanquishing the other. 

I see an elemental conflict here, as well, one dear to any feminist's heart.  It is the conflict between a woman who believes in using her magic and feminine wiles to manipulate men, and another who refuses to do so, preferring instead to use her powers to work along with men towards a common good.  As such, Alexandra and Zella are archetypes, or symbols, of concepts that are an intrinsic part of the human race.  As Carl Jung would say, they are part of humanity's collective unconscious. 

Gabriel, the young prince who falls in love with Alexandra, possesses some magical power, although not at the level of Alexandra.  He does not begrudge her this, however.  His love for her is pure and true, as hers is for him.  Neither one seeks to bend the beloved to his/her will. 

I find it fascinating, as well as very appealing, that Marriott would introduce such modern , although paradoxically ancient, psychological concepts into a fairy tale world.  This, for me, is also a great part of the novel's appeal.  Alexandra is not a typical fairy tale "damsel in distress', but neither is she bent on ensuring that others conform to her will.   Circumstances force her to grow as a person throughout the story, and she never shrinks from the challenges presented to her.  She is an admirable character, and indeed, the novel revolves entirely around her.  

If I had to find fault with anything about this wonderful book, I would have to say it's the ending, which I found to be anti-climactic.  I was expecting something much more dramatic, something more on a grand scale.  

Still, I greatly enjoyed this novel, which kept me turning pages, at times until the wee hours, one particular Saturday.  It's an excellent debut novel, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more of Marriott's work!   I also highly recommend it for adults as well as young adults, not only for the fascinating storytelling, but for its elegantly-written prose. 


Where To Buy:  Amazon, The Book Depository, Barnes & Noble

Zoe Marriott


  1. Waaah! This is a title I've wanted to pick up since forever. Well, no, that's a lie: since I saw the french translation. It's called "Sister of swans" and the cover was so very, very beautiful that I just had to read it. True, still haven't gotten around to it because in French, they've split each book in two tomes, and that makes me economy-wary... But I know I'll get around to it :)

    Thanks for sharing, Maria! Your review sure gave me yet another push into compulsive buying for this one!

    1. Hey, Ron!!

      Oh, you definitely have to read this novel!! Zoe Marriott is a great prose stylist, and moves the story along beautifully. You'll love the character of Alexandra. She's smart, resourceful, and brave. At the beginning of the book, she has a lot of self-doubts, but as the story progresses, she grows as a person, and really comes into her own! She falls in love, too, with a totally wonderful young prince who finds out, toward the end of the novel, that she's actually a princess. He fell in love with her without any regard to her status in life. Also, he's not a controlling guy, which is a huge plus! In fact he's the very antithesis of Alexandra's father.

      You're very welcome for the share, and thanks for commenting!! Sure hope you get started on this book soon, so I can read your own review!! : )

  2. Great review! You have a fabulous blog! I’m an author and illustrator and I made some awards to give to fellow bloggers whose sites I enjoy. I want to award you with the Best Books Blog Award. There are no pass along requirements. This is just to reward you for all the hard work you do! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and review all these books for us authors and readers.

    Go to and pick up your award.

    P.S. Since you are an avid reader I was wondering if I could interview you and get your insights into the books you enjoy. Send me an email: KnightessHope (at) gmail and I will send over the interview questions

    1. Hi, Deirdra!

      Thank you for the compliments!! And thanks for the award!! I greatly appreciate that you've noticed all the hard work I do. Most of us bloggers,including you, work just as hard. Still, it's really nice to be recognized!! I'll include your award on my Awards page. Thanks again!!

      As for being interviewd, I'd love it!! I'll be emailing you for those questions!! Thanks for this, too!! <3

  3. Too bad about the end, but the book sounds amazing all the same. Thanks for such an insightful review.

    1. Hi, Steph!!

      Yes, it's too bad...but the book is indeed amazing, so I do recommend it!!

      You're very welcome for the review, and thanks for the compliment!! <3

  4. Hi Maria, Thanks as always for leaving such nice comments on my blog. I love the cover of this book. Everytime I visit your blog, I admire it. I am not familiar with this tale by Anderson. Lately with all these fairy tale retellings I am feeling like I need to get a volume of fairy tales. This book sounds fabulous. Magic, fairy tale, coming of age....swans, Definitely interesting. I am glad that you loved it, despite the ending being just a bit disappointing. All in all it sounds like a fantastic read. I will add it to my GR shelf! Have a great week :)

    1. Oh, Heidi, you're more than welcome! I love your reviews!!

      This is one of the most beautiful book covers I've ever seen! I think I could stare at it for hours... The book is indeed wonderful, even though the ending wasn't quite what I was expecting... You should definitely read it, though! I'm glad you're putting it on your GR shelf!!

      You have a great week, too, and thank you so much for commenting back!! : )


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