Rafe Martin,
(Scholastic, 2005)

A red flag went up when I cracked open Rafe Martin's continuation of the Grimm tale "The Wild Swans." The opening sentence read, "Rain pelted heavily against the narrow, glazed window."

There it is: a clunky adverb and imagery that doesn't actually do anything. However, I persuaded myself that I was being overly picky and judgmental, and because I was in a waiting room with nothing else to read, I plodded through another few hundred pages. And then I admitted defeat to my first impression.

This particular fairy tale is one of my favorites. Rather than a tidy happily-ever-after ending, it leaves one of its characters with a swan's wing instead of an arm. Unfortunately, "The Wild Swans" has thus far made for three continuations that are all disappointing to varying degrees. Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan is probably the best; Ursula Synge's Swan's Wing commits even worse offenses against adverbs than Birdwing does.

Picking up where Grimm left off, Rafe Martin tells the angst-ridden tale of Ardwin Birdwing, the youngest prince. Possessing vivid memories of his life as a swan and the ability to speak to animals, Ardwin is caught between two worlds, neither of which he can wholly belong to. Much teenage angst ensues. But when he learns that his father is planning to sever his wing and replace it with a mechanical arm, he flees, seeking the wild swans of his past. Of course, nothing turns out quite the way he expected.

On his journey, Ardwin meets Belarius, a Da Vinci-like inventor, a goose girl who is more than she seems, the enchantress who turned him into a swan in the first place, and a talking horse, who is the only remotely memorable character in the book (probably because he reminds me of C.S. Lewis's talking horses).

The integration of another fairy tale ("The Goose Girl") into Ardwin's does nothing for the story, but Birdwing's primary faults lie in its wooden characters, stilted dialogue and clunky psychology. Neither Ardwin, whose angst quickly becomes tiresome, nor any of the other characters emerges as a distinct or particularly likable entity. At the end of 300 pages, I was entirely indifferent to their fates. I flipped to the end only for the sake of good form.

Fortunately, alternatives exist for people who are not stuck in waiting rooms. Patrice Kindl's spunky and irreverent Goose Girl is an excellent antidote to Martin's earnest but earthbound fairy-tale retelling, and Heather Tomlinson's Swan Maiden features a much more likable teenage protagonist caught between worlds. Like Martin's titular character, Birdwing has potential, but never takes flight.

review by
Jennifer Mo

3 October 2009

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