Representation: Secondary Bi/Pan character, Normalised queerness
When her father dies just before her birthday, seventeen-year-old Aderyn inherits the role of Protector of Atratys, a dominion in a kingdom where nobles are able to transform at will into the bird that represents their family bloodline. Aderyn's ancestral bird is a swan. But she has not transformed for years, not since witnessing the death of her mother - ripped apart by hawks that have supposedly been extinct since the long-ago War of the Raptors.
With the benevolent shelter of her mother and her father now lost, Aderyn is at the mercy of her brutal uncle, the King, and his royal court. Driven by revenge and love, she must venture into the malevolent heart of the Citadel in order to seek the truth about the attack that so nearly destroyed her, to fight for the only home she has ever known and for the land she has vowed to protect.
Written in rich detail and evocative language, this is the start of an irresistible, soaring duology about courage, broken loyalties and fighting for your place in the world.
I’m honestly not sure what made me pick this up – I’m a lot more wary of YA than I used to be, and the blurb made Throne of Swans sound very predictable. I guessed this was going to be some kind of Swan Princess retelling. The cover is fairly dull (for my tastes). All things that should have made me pass this book by.
But the blurb also mentioned ‘rich detail and evocative language’, for which I’m an absolute sucker. So it may have been that.
Whatever the reason, I’m so glad I started reading it, because I really loved this book!
Even though it ticks quite a few boxes of my nope-list – first-person present-tense narration, which I normally despise. A romance that doesn’t seem to be based on anything but looks; the emotional aspect kind of comes out of nowhere. And I knocked a whole star off my rating for a completely unnecessary, lazy ‘twist’ that was meant to be an oh-so-shocking reveal about the villains.
I don’t like including spoilers in reviews, so I won’t spell it out for you, but seriously. That ‘twist’ makes me so damn angry.
But if you can let those things go – and it’s surprisingly easy to do, to be fair – this is a book with surprisingly well thought out worldbuilding, and seriously gorgeous prose.
Throne of Swans is set in a kingdom – actually, a world, which is one of the things that made me perk up and pay attention – where humanity is split in two; the Flightless, who are what we’d think of as normal humans, and the Flighted, who can transform into birds, and who also rule as the noble class. Their bird-forms are not random; they seem to be genetic, since the same forms run in families, and their human forms bear signs of the birds they turn into – those who turn into owls have pointed ears, swans are pale with silvery-blond hair, peacocks have greenish skin and blue hair. ! That’s just so cool. It’s also apparent that the bird-forms of the local Flighted match up with their land’s native birds; although a Flighted’s bird-form is much bigger than the normal version of the same bird (which, frankly, makes the swans terrifying, since a normal one is capable of breaking human bones!) nobody turns into exotic birds. Solanum, the setting of Throne of Swans, is reminiscent of western Europe, and so we have Flighted who transform into swans (the royal family), ravens, pigeons, magpies – birds that belong in that environment. But we get a glimpse of foreign ambassadors who turn into peacocks and ibis, implying the existence of other lands based on India/Sri Lanka (where peacocks are native birds) and…well, Wikipedia tells me there are a lot of ibis species, ranging from various parts of Africa all the way to Japan, and since I have no idea which ibis the Corrs had in mind, it’s impossible to say what kind of kingdom that particular ambassador comes from.
But isn’t it incredible that so much thought went into the worldbuilding? I love it! And it serves to tell the reader that this phenomenon – the existence of Flighted – goes beyond Solanum. This is a worldwide thing. There are so many books where the authors don’t think about anything beyond the borders of their immediate setting, so it’s great to see that a lot more thought went into Throne of Swans.
I mean, we even get details like bits of the Flighted religion, quotes from their holy texts (the Litanies), and aphorisms and folktales from both the Flighted and Flightless. This is a really well thought out world, folx. I approve.
Another thing that took me by surprise was that Solanum has normalised queerness. Although Protectors (who rule the territories that make up the kingdoms) and monarchs must have a marriage that can produce children, same-sex relationships are no big deal. In total fairness, this wasn’t handled in the best way – the reader is told this via character dialogue, rather than shown it. We don’t get to see any queer relationships on the page, although one of the major secondary characters turns out to be bisexual (or possibly pansexual, it’s not clear). However…this is the same character, the only character, who is physically disabled and has been cast out of the line of succession because of it. (He’s Flighted, but he lost an arm, making him functionally Flightless).
It makes me really uncomfortable that the only queer character in our cast is also this tragic figure who’s been hurt so badly. Like…his queerness has nothing to do with his injury, or his becoming politically and socially ‘irrelevant’, as he’s described by several other noble characters. (Most of whom are dickheads, but still.) Oh, and he has a tragic unrequited love in his backstory. Like – bundled all together? It’s not a good look. This particular character being Flightless is plot-relevant (although I think it’s going to be even more important in the sequel, if I can predict where this duology is going) but you could have chosen literally anyone else to be The Queer.
Hells, why not make Aderyn, the main character, bisexual? You could still have her fall for a guy, as she does in the book. There’s no reason you couldn’t have done that.
And yet despite all of this, I really did enjoy Throne of Swans. The writing is beautiful, and it reads so easily – at a time when I had real trouble concentrating on any other book, ToS was something I could just…relax into. It pulled me in – I finished the whole thing in under 24 hours.
(Although spread out over more than a few days, I’ll admit. But when I sat down and really paid attention, I lost all ability to put the book down!)
There are some predictable tropes, I won’t lie. But there are also some interesting twists. The secondary characters are well-written, there’s an important thread of social justice woven throughout the story, and although I didn’t really feel Aderyn’s need for revenge, I found her other actions and motivations very believable – including the way she gets in over her head and doesn’t know how to handle a personable but despicable man who slowly starts to manipulate her. She’s been isolated her whole life, and been given very little cause to believe in herself, so I find it very understandable that she doesn’t see the red flags that I did. Who would have taught her how to spot a predator?
But that doesn’t mean she lets him get away with it. Aderyn is a Protector, and she genuinely cares about her land and her people. One of my favourite aspects of her character was seeing how badly she did not want Atratys – her dominion – to become like some of the others she’s seen, where the Flighted are viciously oppressed and locked into poverty. And although she never gets a chance to use the sword her status as a Protector allows her to wear even at the palace – a sword the reader is assured she knows how to use – we do get to see her fight, both with her mind and, when it becomes inescapably necessary, physically.
In conclusion, I really appreciate the worldbuilding and the prose. The plot itself is maybe a bit predictable, but not annoyingly so. The romance might kind of grow out of nothing, but since it doesn’t dominate the book I didn’t mind. And although it has some issues with its queer rep, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the read, because I really did – and I’ll definitely be buying the sequel when it’s released.
So if you’re looking for an easy but beautiful read, and can suspend your disbelief to let your mind gloss over its issues, I’d definitely recommend checking this one out.
(And don’t panic when you find that the actual swan princess is named Odette. This really isn’t a Swan Princess retelling. I promise!)