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The Wild Swans    by Peg Kerr order for
Wild Swans
by Peg Kerr
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2001 (1999)
Softcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Wild Swans surprised me. I had settled down, ready for a fairytale retelling and found instead two books in one. There is a version of the traditional story of the young woman who sews nettle cloaks in order to save her eleven brothers from an evil enchantment, but there is also a modern urban fantasy which takes on the AIDS epidemic amongst gay young men. There are elements that link the two tales, starting with the names of their hero and heroine.

Lady Eliza, daughter of the Earl of Exeter is raised in humble surroundings, until her father and stepmother send for her. She wonders about the fate of her eleven brothers, who have disappeared, and is treated harshly by the stepmother, who is a witch. As a wandering outcast, she encounters her brothers, bespelled to be swans by day and men by night. They travel together to America, where Eliza discovers what has to be done to save them. She takes on a heavy burden that leads others to suspect her of witchcraft.

In modern times, Elias has been raised in priveleged surroundings but rejected after he and his family discovered that he was gay. When Sean rescues him from the streets, Elias is grateful and finds new friends (who become his family), a new way of life, and a long term relationship. Then the epidemic takes hold and Elias fears for those closest to him. There are resonances between Eliza's muteness and how she is shunned as a suspected witch, and the stigma and silence surrounding those suffering from AIDS. Acts of historical characters also appear to have consequences for their descendants.

The Wild Swans is an intriguing combination of the fairytale retelling (a popular format recently) and gritty urban fantasy reminiscent of Charles de Lint, in the topic addressed. While the links between the two tales are fairly subtle, they are both well executed and compelling.

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