#SYWTBH Review: The Swan Riders by Erin Bow


the-swan-riders-9781481442749_hrGreta Stuart has become AI. New transmitters have silvered her fingerprints. New receptors have transformed her vision. And the whole of her memory has become one book in a vast library of instant knowledge. Greta is ready to rule the world.

But the new technology is also killing her.

Greta is only sixteen years old, but her new enhancements are burning through her mortal body at an alarming rate. Of course the leader of the AIs, an ancient and compelling artificial intelligence named Talis, has a plan. Greta can simply do what he’s done when the time comes, and take over the body of one of the Swan Riders, the utterly loyal humans who serve the AIs as part army, part cult.

First though, Greta will have to find a way to stay sane inside her new self. Talis’s plan for that involves a road trip. Escorted by Swan Riders, Greta and Talis set out on a horseback journey across the strange and not-quite-deserted landscape of Saskatchewan. But there are other people interested in Greta, people who want to change the world…and the Swan Riders might not be as loyal as they appear…

Please note: as this is the second book in the series, there will be spoilers for the first book, and minor spoilers for this book. 

A year ago, I read a book about a young woman who was destined to save her people, or die trying. That’s not a euphemism; her life was put forward as collateral to ensure that her people would live peacefully. This is how we first met Greta Gustafson Stuart, princess of the Pan Polar Confederation and a Prisoner of Peace. We also met the Talis, a snarky, sassy, psychopathic AI whose benevolence often resulted in mass destruction, and the Swan Riders, true harbingers of death whose arrival indicated that someone must die. Little did we know that so much would change, and that this book would give us a newly defined -but still determined and terrifyingly stalwart – Greta, a humbled Talis and Swan Riders who would make us cry?

If The Scorpion Rules was about the vivacity of Talis – his sense of humour, his ability to wipe out entire cities, his need to caretake the people of Earth into submission – then this book is for Greta. Talis is still with us, of course, but like Greta he’s undergone a significant change. Just as Greta struggles to contain her memories of being human into some semblance of order, Talis’ own recollections on transforming from the idealistic Michael into something more begin to affect him as he struggles with existing as human again. We are reminded that the Talis we met in the first book is merely a part of a greater being that has been downloaded into a physical form, and that this process has happened again and again. It’s a bit shocking to realize that the Michael we have grown to know is but a tiny piece of the greater Talis, and that the cost to the human host is inevitable death.

Greta undergoes significant changes – so much so at the beginning that it takes Elian to point out the lack of humanity in her decision making. Her flashes of human memory are physically painful reminders of the life she once had, and she struggles to reconcile emotional remembrances with the AI’s ability to replay events. Underneath it all, however, she remains our Greta: strong, determined, intelligent and capable of love. It is her capacity for love and empathy that makes her different from the other AIs who have not survived the transition. As readers, we begin to see that Greta’s ability to accept the qualities from her past life into her new reality makes her uniquely qualified to understand and to deal with the brewing rebellion of her people. She is not the princess they knew, but she will become the leader they need.

I need to take a moment to talk about the Swan Riders, and about Francis Xavier in particular. First viewed as a terrifying signature of death, we learn that the Swan Riders are part guards, part devotees for Talis and the remaining AIs. They carry out missions of mercy as much as they do sentences of death, but their fealty is supposed to be beyond compare. When betrayal occurs, it is not simply an act against Talis, but against their fellow riders. Francis Xavier (FX) is a beautifully written character of strength, loyalty, sorrow and intelligence. He must mourn the loss of Rachel to Talis and to the knowledge that Rider’s Palsy would separate them in the end. He does not disagree with the rebellion, but must follow his own path in remaining loyal and devoted to Talis and Greta. When he breaks and cries, we cry with him because we feel his conflict so intimately.

There are so many facets of this book that it’s hard to narrow them down. Horses named for Canadian folksingers (I see you, Gordon Lightfoot), spaceships, the ideals of freedom,  the definition of humanity, the price of fealty, the definition of consent, the values of independence versus security, the concept of possession – there are at least a dozen more things I could mention that deserve recognition. A friend refers to this book as “a post-apocalyptic roadtrip via horses through the Saskatchewan desert” and she’s not wrong; The Swan Riders is the best book I’ve read this year, and one you won’t want to miss.

A copy of The Swan Riders was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada as part of this blog tour, but does not affect my view. The Swan Riders is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, and distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada/SimonTeen.  It is out now and available for purchase from your favourite independent, online or big box bookstore. ISBN: 9781481442749, 384 pages. 

Humans! Join the crusade! Become part of the Swan Riders and save the planet!