The Silent Swan by Lex Keating (AltWit Press, 2013)
Having found myself in the vicinity of Stephan's Kindle, I could not resist reading his copy of The Silent Swan. Were it not for his positive review, I would have passed on the opportunity, as coming-of-age stories and romances are both near the bottom of my genre preferences. (You can read his review here.) However, The Silent Swan is so much more than that. (The cover is unfortunate. Maybe not for the author, since in my observation that kind of cover sells. But it hardly does justice to the book.) What really hooked me is that the story is a mystery, and I'm a sucker for mysteries. Trying to unravel the truth kept me reading, and the ending did not disappoint. Overall, I give the book four of five stars. But for the romance/teen angst/school story genre, it deserves at least a ten. Ditto for the "modern Christian fiction" genre. The bar is really, really low in those categories, which makes The Silent Swan a standout.
It almost lost me in the first chapter. I suppose that if a character is going to develop gradually over 580 pages, it helps to start from a bad place. I really hate it when people do stupid things in books, and the protagonist was being really stupid. Granted, the action takes place in a school, among hormone-laden teenagers, which is practically a recipe for stupidity ... but still.
I've said this before—in my review of Stephen Lawhead's The Skin Map—but it's equally true here: "My least favorite [parts of the book] were the drawn-out descriptions of the physical appearance of every female character encountered, and the even more interminable battle scenes, both of which were obviously included for the more testosterone-laden among us." The Silent Swan is clean, almost grandchild-safe (and probably better than much of what our eldest has already read), but violence and sex still sell to some segments of the audience. I found the brotherly squabbles (and fights) annoying, even boring; and if this story provides an accurate description of what goes on in a teenage boy's mind whenever he sees a woman ... let's just say I'm feeling a lot better about burqas. It's not porn, but even I am enough of a feminist to find it outrageously insulting. (Yet this is 'way better than so much of what's available and aimed specifically for the teenaged audience.)
There are some points where the story stretches my "willing suspension of disbelief" too far. It is unfathomable that in any family these days, let alone a family with a full-time employed mom, kids could grow up so ignorant in the kitchen. Haven't they heard of cookbooks? Or allrecipes.com? I can see asking them to have meal responsibilities, but what parents expect so much from someone with no preparation at all? I actually know someone who was taught to swim by being thrown into the middle of a lake—but even then the instructor was there to keep her from drowning.
The main female character is also omni-competent in so many areas that for some that will be the least credible part of the book, but I see it as a strong point: I know teenagers can be and do so much more if allowed to break out of their media- and school-induced comas! If she is a bit too much of a superhero, she's also the most human and reasonable of all the characters, and in her courage, perseverance, intelligence, and (non-romantic) love is a positive female figure—something I find very rare.
I mentioned that The Silent Swan is a standout in the modern Christian fiction genre. Frankly, I don't know whether or not the author intended it to have that label. Certainly J.R.R. Tolkien would not have accepted such a designation for his works, and they are some of the best Christian fiction extant. But it deserves consideration, because I could see this book selling in a Christian bookstore. Certainly the cover looks like the Christian romances I've seen there. Yet one of its strengths is that it's a Christian novel that is hardly recognizable as a Christian novel. It's not The Lord of the Rings, but is nonetheless infused with Christian attitudes and values while completely eschewing overt Christian language. Stories with altar calls just. don't. work. At the same time, it's not one of those books by postmodern Christian authors, who throw in bad language and questionable content just to prove they're "authentic" and without religious hangups.
The Silent Swan is both too hard and too easy on the foster care system, so I'll average that out to okay.
All the sibling violence to the contrary, the protagonist's family is solid, full of mutual respect and love, and with no quarter given for disrespecting the parents. That, sadly, is a rare quality in the books that are pitched to children these days. And if his mind starts out one-dimensional when it comes to women, he does grow considerably, and in all the right directions. Respect for family; love as something greater than sex; the idea that life might be more serious than going to prom; basic honesty; resisting seduction; the importance of setting oneself up for success in potentially risky situations (e.g. being in a group rather than alone with your girl on a deserted beach)—these are not popular attitudes, especially in young adult books, but are presented as good, reasonable, and believable in The Silent Swan.
The Silent Swan is a well-constructed and clever take on one of Grimm's fairy tales, The Six Swans. I won't say the writing is great, but it's good, and that's saying a lot in these days of slap-dash writing, and of editiors and proofreaders who apparently have time to do neither. I've recommended it to our library for purchase, and I hope Lex Keating has another book in the works.
Note: Now that I have a Kindle, buying books is a harder decision. Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Renaissance World is still on my Amazon wish list; I would have bought it months ago if I could only decide whether to get the physical book or the Kindle version. Unfortunately, it's not part of the Kindle Matchbook program, where you can get the Kindle version for little or nothing if you buy the printed book. While writing this review, I decided to buy the Kindle version of The Silent Swan for myself (it's only $2.99), but then I noticed that it IS part of the Matchbook program, and what if I later decide to get the book, which at the moment is a pricey $17.99? I would have wasted the opportunity. Decisions, decisions. (Amazon Prime members can read the book for free, by the way.)