Danika reviews Shadow Swans by Laura Thomas

I was intrigued as soon as I heard about the premise of Shadow Swans: a reclusive young woman who lives in an abandoned building filled with handmade wire hummingbirds falls in love with another young woman who lives in the subway tunnels. Together, they explore the tunnels beneath the city. If I had read the description of their characters gives on the back of the book, describing Den as “shockingly beautiful and well-read” and the main character, Ruby, as “a filthy rich misanthrope”, I probably would have been less interested. I think that the major divisive element of Shadow Swans is our narrator, Ruby. Ruby is entirely a filthy rich misanthrope. She finds everything and everyone shallow and meaningless. She believes herself to be the only one who thinks outside of such petty concerns as sorority barbecues and making friends. She despairs of her ennui and eagerly chases after Den and her underground life because their poverty and anger makes her alive–but, of course, she doesn’t have to risk any of her wealth to do so. Ruby is shallow and self-absorbed and not very likable, but I liked reading about her. It is entirely an accurate portrait of many young people, and I can’t deny that my teenage self may have had some things in common with her. The overwrought prose seemed to be a deliberate reflection of how Ruby would think and write. I found it sort of funny, reading about how she hates her name but keeps it to be ironic and to suffer.

Besides finding Ruby charming in her ridiculousness, I was also genuinely interested in the plot. The relationship between Den and Ruby is complex, because in some ways Ruby is selfish and shallow to be thrill-seeking by basically doing poverty tourism and trying to escape the “ennui” of her well-off life by vicariously experiencing the dangers of being homeless. At the same time, Ruby does care about Den and Den is using her in some ways as well. Ruby does take a lot of risks just to be around Den, and really wants the best for her. They have a tumultuous friendship and that turns into an ambiguous relationship. I was interested to see whether Ruby would smarten up or remain self-absorbed.

On top of that, I loved the idea of this underground adventure as they explore secret government tunnels connecting the East coast. The story may, as Anna K said in her review, “often stretch believability”, but if you can suspend your disbelief, I thought it was fascinating. As for Ruby smartening up, I’m not really sure if she did. In some ways, Ruby just earns her callousness that seems undeserved in the beginning of the novel. But I think ultimately she does learn something about her previously self-absorbed attitude, even if it’s not explicitly stated in the text. If you’re looking for a dark adventure story or are interested in teen dystopian books, I think this one will appeal to you as well.

Check out Jasper and Anna K‘s reviews of Shadow Swans as well!

Anna Katterjohn reviewed Shadow Swans by Laura Thomas

Laura Thomas’s Shadow Swans is by no means a romance novel. It is a love story. It is also a story of change, of the deliberate destruction of all that comes after a coming-of-age.

Ruby Cooper is a 22-year-old millionaire; she created a social networking website for computer geeks. She chooses to make her home in an abandoned building and rails against the mundanity and passivity of the lives of all the people bustling about her in New York City. One day, she simply remains on the subway platform for hours rather than continue her commute to the office. And there she meets Credenza (Den), who changes Ruby’s life. Den lives underground in the subway tunnels and has never been outside–owing to an allergy to the sun or simply from her mother’s fear and years of being told she’ll die should she attempt it. Also, she’s read that it’s not so great in the exposed world, either, as Ruby well knows.

Despite Den’s rough exterior, Ruby is immediately attracted to her, and their friendship grows slowly and cautiously.

Ruby’s trips into the tunnels are reminiscent of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, with steam coming from New York City’s underground systems in the modern day rather than in a steam-powered alternate past. But the foreignness and fear are the same as Ruby encounters giant rats and cockroaches, pitch black, and all make and matter of hopeless souls.

Beyond these adventures, Ruby and Den embark on an even riskier journey, and, as Ruby explains after first meeting Den, “On that particular day in February, my writing was filled with wildly optimistic dribble that failed to portend the untamed tornado that my life would soon become.” There is dark foreshadowing throughout, so it is not a spoiler for me to tell you there is no happily-ever-after ending.

Yet, in the meantime, the two fall in love and live with every ounce of their beings, refusing to settle into the societally accepted status quo.

I would have liked an author’s note about what research Thomas did and what parts of the book are based on reality or even rumor. I’ve been intrigued by the so-called mole people ever since I first heard the phrase when I moved to NYC ten years ago.

Although Ruby and Den could have been developed more fully and the plot often stretches believability, the author allows readers to escape from mundanity if they are willing to suspend disbelief to experience the somewhat far-fetched adventure she’s created for the protagonists. Thomas beautifully captures the tenuous exploration between two people from different worlds, who are both dissatisfied and seeking yet afraid to let down their walls for the other to bulldoze in.

Jasper reviews Shadow Swans

“Den’s azure eyes betrayed unfathomable tombs of fury and sadness.”
“They feared the rogue warrior they perceived to be growing inside me.”
“Anxious to coddle her kinetic sweetness, I submitted to the secrecy…”
“We were all, by now, wet like kittens tossed in the ocean.”

I’m surprised I made it through Laura Thomas’s Shadow Swans, a coming-of-age novel about a rich young malcontent who makes friends with a homeless girl living in New York City’s subway tunnels. Thomas’s main character, Ruby, speaks with the self-absorbed voice of someone who has yet to realize that suffering and apathy are neither unique nor artistic. Ruby’s first-person narration crams in unnecessary similes, adjectives, and adverbs in a style that I at first thought was satirical. She skateboards around New York City, rides on the top of taxicabs, and waxes ineloquent on the vapidity of human beings, all while living in an abandoned apartment because it’s more real than living somewhere where she has to pay rent. It takes meeting the tunnel-dwelling Den (short for Credenza) to make Ruby realize that ostracizing yourself because you think it sets you above the common herd isn’t quite the same as genuinely struggling on the outskirts of society–and even that realization doesn’t shift her narrative voice away from overwrought self-involvement.

But in spite of the purple prose and predictable young-person-comes-of-age-with-the-help-of-eccentric-friends-and-drugs-and-realizing-actions-have-consequences plot, there’s a decent story buried in Shadow Swans. It just needs help to get out. That story’s about respecting other people’s boundaries and about the selfishness of trying to push someone from a life very different from your own to “grow.” Sometimes, people push others because it makes them feel special to be the teacher, the knowledge-bringer, and pushing for selfish reasons often hurts others more than it helps. Parts of Shadow Swans are about that. Parts of it are also about falling in love with a friend, and not being certain what that means or how it changes a relationship. Both parts, if they were couched in firmer writing, pacing, plot, and character development, would make Shadow Swans worth reading. At 99 cents for the ebook, it may still be worth reading, if you’re looking for a cheap reading fix. If you’re tight on time and money, though, I’d wait until Thomas writes another book, or develops this one further.