The Swan Thieves

“What will we someday do, I always wonder, without the pleasures of turning through books and stumbling on things we never meant to find?”

Elizabeth Kostova

So I’ve been wanting to read The Swan Thieves for a while, because Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, a book which contained the genius combination of libraries and vampires, is one of my favourite books ever. And The Swan Thieves was…really quite good, actually.

Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow admits a new patient, painter Robert Oliver, to his private clinic, and tries to work out why Robert paints the same woman every day, over and over. The search takes him all over the world (Historian-style) and involves “breaking every goddamn rule” (Marlow’s words, not mine) in the book.

The Swan Thieves, unlike The Historian, isn’t a fantasy (or even “magical realism”) novel, but Kostova’s hand is clearly visible in the writing even so. It has the same quietness, and the same respect for the academic side of life, that I liked about The Historian, as well as a couple of embedded first-person narratives that are compelling and often rather sad. It’s also very arty – in fact, it’s one of those books that makes you look at the world in a different way (the mark of a good novel, I feel), look closer at the colours in things, literally see the world in a new light.

If I had one niggle, it’s that Robert’s plotline doesn’t really seem to work. Its ending is especially unconvincing, and there’s no real diagnosis or explanation for his illness. It just is. And then, suddenly, it isn’t any more. The Swan Thieves suffers a little from Everything was Magically Better syndrome (I am going to have to come up with a better name for that).

Nevertheless, it’s still a nice novel to read, if a little forgettable. Fans of The Historian should definitely enjoy it. (And if you haven’t read The Historian, go and read that first.)


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