Friday, October 12, 2018

Birthday Review: Capsule reviews of books by Thomas Burnett Swann

Thomas Burnett Swann was born 12 October 1928. He died in 1976, only 47, of cancer. He was an academic who taught at Florida Atlantic University, and wrote a significant study of the poet H. D. Beginning in the late 1950s he wrote a number of fantasy stories, and eventually a number of novels, including a glut in the last year or two of his life (some published posthumously), most set in a loosely connected alternate history/fantasy of the couple of millenia before Christ. It's often been noted that his earlier work was better than the later work (especially the last novels, presumably produced at speed after he had gotten sick, perhaps with the intent of supporting his heirs.) This is a position I endorse entirely. His novels included very noticeably gay subtexts, though only towards the end did this become explicit at all (it's most noticeable in How Are the Mighty Fallen, which tells explicitly of David and Jonathan as lovers). As such it is widely assumed that he was gay, though I'm can't find confirmation of that in a quick web search.

Fifteen or so years ago I read through the entire Swann corpus of novels, with some enjoyment and some frustration. I still consider two shorter works, both later expanded into less successful novels, as his best: "Where is the Bird of Fire?" and "The Manor of Roses". The latter in particular is remarkable, and while it's not forgotten it deserves a wider audience.

What follows is a set of very brief capsule reviews I did at the time of reading of several of Swann's books.

(Cover by Gray Morrow)
I read a short Thomas Burnett Swann novel, The Weirwoods, an historical fantasy in a rather unbelievable Etruscan setting.  I've only ever read a couple of Swann's novellas ("Where is the Bird of Fire?" is the one I recall), but I knew of his reputation.  He seems to occupy a fairly unique niche in the "Fantasy" genre.  This novel is not bad, sexy, oddly dark while also casual and gay, written beautifully, lots of fine descriptive passages, but not at all slow-moving.  An Etruscan town bordering on the Weirwoods, haunt of Water Sprites, Fauns, Centaurs and the like, has long lived in an uneasy truce with the inhabitants of the woods, but a new immigrant breaks the truce by kidnapping  and enslaving a water sprite, leading to ... well, bad things for most concerned.

(Cover by Gray Morrow)
Back to Thomas Burnett Swann.  This time I read a story collection, The Dolphin and the Deep. Included are the title story, about an Etruscan (Swann was fascinated by the Etruscan civilization) who encounters a relic of Circe and is compelled to find his way around the coast of Africa to her new home.  Along the way he meets a merboy, though this one is called something else, and a dolphin, as well as some humans.  After a variety of adventures, mostly encounters with other odd mythological creatures, he meets Circe, and she teaches him a lesson about real love.  Rather minor TBS.  The other two stories are a bit better: "The Murex" is about an Amazon who falls in love with an ant-man, and realizes the wrongness of the Amazonian vows against heterosexual love; and one of Swann's very best stories: "The Manor of Roses", about two boys and a girl in 13th Century England who come to a mysterious manor in the forest.  The mythological creatures of this story are mandrakes, and Swann treats the mandrakes with sympathy even while recognizing their inimicality (is that a word?).  The main characters are closer to believable than many of Swann's young humans, and the story strives more and mostly achieves an honest melancholy/regret, which seems the main chord Swann was after in most of his stories, but which is too often reached by strained means.  This story was incorporated into one of the quickie novels published in the last year of Swann's life, or even after his death, The Tournament of Thorns.  This short version has everything important from the novel, and I would regard it as the preferred version of the story.

The only novel I've finished since my last post here is an odd, rare, one, The Goat Without Horns, by Thomas Burnett Swann.  This first appeared in the August and September 1970 issues of F&SF, and was later published by Ballantine.  I saw those issues at a used book store the other night, and decided to pick them up.  The novel is really quite good, the story of a young Englishman in about 1890 who goes to a tiny Caribbean island to tutor a 15 year old girl. He falls for the girl's mother, the owner of the island, but the mysterious Carib who dominates the island, Curk, wants him to impregnate the 15-year old, for his won sinister reasons, which come clear at the end.  An odd twist is that the story is told from the viewpoint of a dolphin who befriends the young Englishman.  The twist at the end was original, and it surprised me.  Pretty good stuff, quite different.

Two more Thomas Burnett Swann novels: Lady of the Bees (1976) is a cobbled together novel from Swann's famous early novella "Where is the Bird of Fire?", about Romulus and Remus, and some other novelets.  It didn't measure up to my memories of the original novella, which I recall as being quite moving and powerful.  This story had POV problems, signalled by the title, which refers to a fairly minor character, who, unfortunately, narrates much of the book.  Somewhat better was The Tournament of Thorns, also from 1976, also a novel cobbled together from earlier shorts.  This is set in England in about 1213.  It's about men and "Mandrakes": plant-men who are kind of like vampires.  It shows the seams of the cobbling together a bit too much, but the individual stories do work, and are quite moving and fairly original. That said, "The Manor of Roses", the first story in this sequence, is still by far the best.

Also I read Thomas Burnett Swann's The Not-World.  This story is set in Georgian England, but in a remaining scrap of "forest primeval".  A lame Gothic novelist, Deirdre, meets a down-at-his-luck sailor, and they are thrown together when the coach he is driving and she is renting is lost in the forest.  They encounter the poet Thomas Chatterton, and after a balloon ride, and further encounters with more or less typical Swann creatures, they win through to consummate their love.  OK, but less than great.  And I don't think Swann came within light-years of capturing the mindset of people of that era.

My latest Thomas Burnett Swann book was The Minikins of Yam, one of several he published right at the end of his life.  (He died in 1976, and apparently published at least 3 novels in '76 and 2 in '77).  This one is set in Ancient Egypt, as usual with Swann an alternate ancient history in which some mythological creatures are real, including the title Minikins (small humanoids, of which the female lead is one, and which have customs such as all the females being whores, whore being a term of honor), Rocs, and others.  I think this is one of the more enjoyable of the later Swann books.  It's light-hearted, as more usual with late Swann, but the light-heartedness doesn't seem as forced as in some of his other books.  The basic story is about a child pharaoh who must undo the damage done when his father banished magic from Egypt, and at the same time must fend off a plot against his throne.

It's been a while since I read a Thomas Burnett Swann book.  Moondust is from 1968, at his typical length (43,000 words), and very much of his "type".  Perhaps it is odd only in being sympathetic to conventional religion (Judaism at the time of Joshua), and (relatedly) being more pro-human than some of his stuff.  It's also pretty good, one of his better stories.

It's set in Jericho, just as the Israelites are approaching.  The hero is a young man, named Bard, from Crete, exiled since childhood along with his mother in Jericho (Crete having fallen, I can't remember if this is coterminous with the collapse of the Minoan regime).  His family have adopted perforce a sort of changeling: a very ugly girl who was switched for their young boy.  This girl, called Rahab (a Biblical reference, hence a hint) or Moondust, becomes a dear friend to the hero, .  As the time of the main action approaches, she suddenly metamorphoses into a striking beautiful woman with wings.  Thus, one of TBS' typical "pre-human" races (though, again typically, interfertile with humans).  Bard looks on unhappily as she offers herself to different men, including an Israelite spy (check your Bible for Rahab!), then she disappears.  Bard and a friend venture underground to the strange home of Rahab's people, and their odd society: women only (hence the habit of coming to human cities and becoming whores: this is to try to get pregnant), and ruled by intelligent telepathic fennecs.  Rahab's love for the hero drives her to an heroic act of resistance to her rulers.  As I said, one of Swann's better works, though not one of his very best.


  1. Hi

    I enjoyed your post. I read Swann many many years ago but have not read anything lately. That said I still pick them up every once in awhile so I should see what I have and select one you have reviewed. That said, so many books on my shelves so little time.

    Happy Reading

  2. Swann is certainly unique, but for me, he's an "Oh my God - Really?!" writer.

    1. Thomas -- certainly understandable for much of his work, especially the later novels. But I do recommend in particular "The Manor of Roses".