Review | The Swan Riders, Erin Bow

26409580The Swan Riders picks up right where The Scorpion Rules leaves off. Greta Stuart has become an AI to save two kingdoms from destruction and war and is now on a journey with Talis, the AI who rules the world, back to his headquarters. Their journey is perilous, partly because the transition from human to AI puts Greta as the risk of death, and also partly because Greta’s sacrifice has stirred her nation into open rebellion. The Swan Riders in the title refer to members of Talis’ army, introduced in Scorpion Rules as the ones who take the Children of Peace to their deaths, and brought to the fore here as enhanced humans who have offered Talis their fealty and the use of their bodies.

Scorpion Rules was intense, horrific, tragic. We saw the world through the eyes of Greta as a human princess with human friends who were all raised as hostages for peace. We felt her dignified resignation at her fate and her abject fear when things actually do come to a head. Swan Riders has a completely different tone and perspective, yet no less gripping and thought-provoking. We gain Greta’s new perspective as an AI who can tap into the world’s satellites yet still struggles with the dichotomy between her analytical programming and her human emotions. It’s fascinating to see things through her AI eyes, yet also heartbreaking to realize how much of her humanity has been suppressed in the transition. It’s especially disquieting to realize that because we’re in her head, we don’t even really miss the markers of her humanity until one of the other characters points it out. In one scene, Elian observes that the old Greta wouldn’t have stood back and watched someone get hurt. Greta points out, logically, that she was outnumbered, and Elian responds that old Greta wouldn’t have been deterred. It’s a disturbing realization, made all the more so because as a reader, I was so enmeshed in Greta’s new perspective that I didn’t even notice the lack of humanity in her behaviour.

While Greta remains the main perspective, much of the story’s heart really lies with Michael Talis and the swan riders Rachel (whose body Michael inhabits) and Francis Xavier (Rachel’s partner). Michael is the most powerful AI in the world, yet circumstances prompt him to examine his humanity, or whatever is left of it. It’s a nice ambiguous semi-reversal, somewhat like the flip version of Greta’s transition to AI, and it makes the series villain probably one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Rachel’s fate is very much tied to Michael’s, and seeing Francis Xavier’s reactions to his beloved’s body being moved by an AI’s mind makes the price of the Swan Riders’ fealty very tangible.

The horror of having one’s mind violated was touched upon in Scorpion Rules, with the mention of dreamlock as a torture tactic, but it’s explored even deeper in Swan Riders. In this case, Michael entering Greta’s mind is an act of kindness, of helping her deal with human memories encroaching upon her AI thought processes. (Due to their perfect memory, AI’s don’t remember experiences, but rather relive them, with all the intensity that implies, and so can be traumatic.) But however kindly meant, it’s still a violation, and Greta fears what it does to the vestiges of her humanity. At one point, she says, “He took it, and I didn’t say he could.” This, as well as other incidents in the book, make uncomfortable parallels between mind control and rape, and again raise so many thoughts and emotions about what’s being done by a character whom we’re beginning to sympathize with.

Erin Bow’s books defy brief summaries and simple star ratings. There is just so much going on, and so much more happening between the lines, that while it’s accurate to say I loved and enjoyed her books, it’s even more accurate to say that they left me reeling at the end. Much like the ending of Scorpion Rules, with Greta’s irreversible decision to become an AI, felt both tragic and necessary, the ending of Swan Riders is similarly complex. On one glance, it’s a good ending and a good final note to the series. On the other hand, it can lead to so many more complex issues that can give rise to an even more thought-provoking third book.

Both Scorpion Rules and Swan Riders are amazing, among the most complex and mature YA books that I’ve read. I can’t predict how you’ll feel about the story, but I can predict that you’ll feel something, likely a lot of things, and that you will be left full of thoughts and questions. This series is a brilliant example of building a world and seeing where it takes you. Kudos, Ms. Bow.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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