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[GUEST POST] C.S.E. Cooney on Mythic Sacrifice in BONE SWANS and Beyond

CSECooneyC.S.E. Cooney lives and writes in a well-appointed Rhode Island garret, right across the street from a Victorian Strolling Park. She is the author of How To Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes and Jack o’ the Hills. She won the 2011 Rhysling Award for her story-poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her first short fiction collection Bone Swans is forthcoming with Mythic Delirium in 2015.

Other examples of her short fiction and poetry can be found in Rich Horton’s Years Best Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011, 2012, 2014), The Nebula Awards Showcase (2013), The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures (2014), The Moment of Change Anthology, Black Gate Magazine, Apex, Subterranean, Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, Clockwork Phoenix, Steam-Powered II, The Book of Dead Things, Cabinet des Fées, Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium.

Her recent novellas, “Martyr’s Gem” and “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One” may be found online at GigaNotoSaurus. “Witch, Beast, Saint” the first of her erotic fairytales from The Witch’s Garden Series appears in Strange Horizons, with the second, The Witch in the Almond Tree, available on Amazon for Kindle.

Mythic Sacrifice in Bone Swans and Beyond

by C.S.E. Cooney

So I wrote this book, Bone Swans, a collection of five novellas: all fantasy, all secondary world, all different flavors (adventure, mystery, fairy tale retellings, post apocalyptic katabasis with dead children and clowns, that sort of thing). After I’d turned in my final edits, and after Mike and Anita Allen of Mythic Delirium Books put the table of contents in order, and after I’d given the whole manuscript another once-over for those irritating copy edits (like where you get the title wrong, calling them “Bond Swans” instead of “Bone Swans,” which changes the story into something involving a lot of little guns and littler bathing suits), I made a list.

On this list, I put down a few things I’d noticed thematically about all the stories together that I hadn’t noticed when I was writing them singly over the years.

  1. Pale faces with black tongues. (Two stories)
  2. Red handprints. (Two stories—but not the same two.)
  3. People who are also animals. (Three of the five.)
  4. Dead children. (Four of the five… Yikes.)
  5. Sacrifice. (Four of the five. Well, arguably five.)

Wow, I thought. Golly. That’s a lot of, um, sacrifice. I WONDER IF ANYONE WILL NOTICE!

Turns out, short fiction reviewer Brit Mandelo at Tor.com did. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or guilty that I was so dang obvious. Sometimes I think I’m being subtle, and then other people are like, “Yeah, your subtlety is like getting hit on the head with a 2X4.”

But sacrifice is interesting, isn’t it? It’s one of the great mythic themes. Everybody dies, so what about those people who choose to make their deaths count in their time?

In my story “Life on the Sun” there is a literal exchange: “blood for rain.” If our girl doesn’t slit her own throat while falling from a great height, hundreds of thousands of people will die from a long drought. So what’s a doughty protagonist to do? Take the knife. See where it takes you.

In “The Bone Swans of Amandale,” for the sake of Drama and Dora Rose, Maurice the Incomparable (sometimes a man, sometimes a rat) will do just about anything—including drowning himself and about a bajillion of his compatriots in the Drukkamag River. He hopes to gain infamy after death. What he gains by not dying is SO MUCH MORE. He gains, well, a few friends. The grudging affection of a Swan Princess. And a whole bevy of bony birds, who are, more or less, you know, undead.

The character Shursta Sarth in “Martyr’s Gem” sacrifices his marriage to the woman he loves in order to save a murderer from her vengeance. He gives up his future hope to make a moral decision. But morality in a grim world is a murky thing at best, and there are always sharks circling, ready to devour the moral, immoral, and amoral alike.

A follow-up question to your average mythic sacrifice might be, “So what comes after death?” Or “Are there any rewards for the fall?”

When I look at my own work, my stories seem to answer me a bit wryly. “The reward for self-sacrifice, kid, is usually a buttload of MORE WORK in the afterlife. CONGRATULATIONS!” (Well at least my characters won’t ever get bored, even after they die horribly. Always something to do. Storms to bring. Evil clowns to kill. Weird birds to become.)

I love the word “kenosis”—which means “self-emptying.” But it’s empty in the sort of way that leaves room for something else to fill you. Something divine and powerful. Something that makes you more. My father taught me the word “kenosis” through a song he wrote, and while it has theological implications, I think I came to understand it in a fairly idiosyncratic (more simplistic) way. A willing sacrifice empties herself out (of blood, of choice, of life) and then is filled again to overflowing with something beyond her imagination.

And why? So she can get more work done. I like that.

I mean, I guess I like that. I keep writing about it somehow. Even when I don’t mean to.

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