Masque of the Swan (1996)

     by Rebecca Ashe

Romance novels, as a genre, get a very bad rap; they usually get dismissed as worthless, brainless chick lit for bored housewives, which has just as much misogyny involved as it sounds like it does.  And, of course, there have been a lot of problems in the genre: frustrating body image issues, spineless heroines with limp pasta brains, ridiculously unrealistic settings and plot twists, the glorification of bastardly rapists... These are good reasons to view older romances with a little healthy suspicion, but thank goodness, this book doesn't suffer from (most of) those problems. It has an engaging storyline and interesting characters, and does its part to help drag everyone's expectations out of the muck.
 
This book was hard to peg for me to begin with, since it did a lot of things that would normally have me hunting for the lighter fluid. Luckily, a charming writing style and a firm grounding in alternate reality not only stopped me from lighting it up but actually gave me plenty of reasons to enjoy it. It has an extremely charming fairy-tale quality to it, and the things I normally despise in a Phantom adaptation were handled accordingly so that I really couldn't get overly upset by them.
 
The blurb on the back of the book claims that the author describes the story as "a cross between Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast." As usual, I sigh over the fact that those are basically the same story, with the Phantom tale as a more specialized offshoot of Beauty and the Beast, but due to the fairy-tale nature of the story I mentioned and the way that elements were woven together without losing coherency, it didn't turn out to be the issue it is with some writers.


Prologue:


The first thing I noticed was that the writing style is well-done in its own right. It's a bit choppy here and there, and suffers from a bit of the creeping sentence fragment disease that was all the rage in the 80s and 90s, and occasionally veers off into just a little too much purple prose adjective excitement, but overall it's surprisingly enjoyable: evocative, clear, and impressive in its vocabulary. I actually didn't know a few words in this book and had to go look them up, and I love a book that lets me learn.
 
I was initially hesitant about the style because it seemed much too flowery for the book I thought I was reading; however, as portentous bells and gigantic savior-swans and aged kings began to pop up all over the place, it became apparent that this was going to be a fairy tale, and a fairy tale always benefits from a little word-magic.


Chapter 1:


The city in which the book is set is Larissa, the capital of Montagne, which is confusing because Larissa is in fact a rather well-known city in Greece, capital of the Thessaly province; cursory research has turned up no similarly-named cities. The culture and climate of the area, as shown in the novel, seem distinctly Western European. Montagne is a city in northern Italy, while "Montagne" is simply the French word for mountain or hill, and while there is some suggestion of Italy in the later Carnival tradition in other chapters, Carnival was an established tradition in various parts of Europe, so that doesn't really rule France out. Further compounding my bewilderment, the character introduced as the Count of Samothrace makes it shortly clear that this Larissa definitely isn't in Greece and is far away from his home, which was causing me to think maybe it was a fantasy location, but THEN people were talking about Paris, which is a real place, and I was like... look, what am I supposed to be picturing, here?
 
So okay then, Larissa, is basically a placebo combination of Paris and Venice during Carnival season. This is a fairy tale and we should probably stop trying to force it to make sense.
 
Now that we've given up on the setting, we can start fretting over the time period. The unquestioned domination of the Catholic Church and lack of influence from non-European cultures (not actually accurate at really any time period, but there's a perception of medieval and Renaissance Europe as having no contact with Africa and Asia for some reason) seem to indicate somewhere around the eleventh or twelfth century, though the frequent, permissive masquerade festivals have a more Renaissance feel to them. Since it's clearly an alternative universe, I wouldn't have been worrying about this too much and would have spent my time just coasting along in a comfortable haze of once-upon-a-timeness if it weren't for the one thing I hate the most whenever Ashe does it: modern vernacular. I can put up with a lot of things, but characters saying, "What's up?" in my vaguely thirteenth fairy-tales just make my eyelids twitch. I know, I know... like there was no period vernacular for which this could stand in, but it just doesn't come across without being jarring.


Chapter 2:


I was initially cranky about the treatment of the Church in general and the clergymen of Larissa in particular. By chapter two, they had been efficiently characterized as evil, innocent-girl-molesting bastards who kill graceful, blameless waterfowl for fun. As entertaining and significant as corrupt churchmen can be, I was not impressed by how heavy-handed and sweeping these generalizations seemed to be. There will later be positive portrayals of clergy to juxtapose these, but unfortunately it's too little and too late; this would be interesting if something was being said about the Church's institutional power or tradition of mistreatment of the peasant class, but most of the clergy's sins are individual, almost cartoonish ones, which leaves me wishing there was more of an overarching point here.

I was also irritated by the heroine, Caralisa, at least initially. Yes, her name is a whopper of a romance cliche name - it means "God's beloved promise" or something along those lines. Her blithe assertion that she has nothing whatsoever to confess seems like she's actively baiting the priest, since there's always something to confess in the Church, and swanning into confession to say, "oh, I have nothing to confess, I lived a blameless Christ-like existence this week but still wanted to come tell you about it" is not going to go over well with anyone. This is part of Ashe's attempts to make her heroine as innocent and pure of heart as possible, which she does come across as pretty well, but in this case it doesn't make her sound free of sin so much as it makes her sound smug and conceited.


Chapter 3:


So our beginning hook is that this tall, sexy masked stranger hears Caralisa singing in her boarding house, climbs the wall, dances a waltz with her, and then takes off again. She's all intrigued and whatnot, especially when he comes back later to sneak her out, dress her up, and take her to the big masquerade festival (as a poor orphan girl under the thumb of her boarding house's matron, she's not allowed to go to these sinful things and doesn't get to have a debut like the other girls). The gentleman introduces himself as the Count of Samothrace, which is traditionally the name of the demon that haunts the ruins on the heights that overlook the city; of course, everyone assumes this is a conceit and he's just some guy. He owns a theater, among other things, and teaches Caralisa some music. Aha... we have found our Phantom character, haven't we?

 

An interesting change to the Phantom/Christine character relationship is that Ashe chooses to move them out of the realm of opera; while Caralisa has a pleasant enough voice, the Count tells her baldly that it isn't the right kind of voice for singing opera. Instead, she's a composer, one without any formal training but plenty of natural talent to make up her own songs and sing them for her own amusement. And instead of teaching her to sing, the Count teaches her how to write music so she can put her songs down on paper, and edits and tweaks them for her, creating a new perspective on Leroux's teacher-student relationship without losing any of its efficacy. This is more down-to-earth and solid, as opposed to the somewhat ephemeral, mystical power the Phantom exhibits over Christine's voice in the original novel, but the choice is no less powerful. I enjoyed the fresh idea.
 
And, of course, we can't forget dear Raoul: here his name is Michaeljohn, the Marquis de St. Florian, and he is perfectly beautiful and devotedly adoring of Caralisa from the first moment he meets her at the masquerade. Unfortunately, it's fairly clear from the get-go where he's eventually going to end up on the scale of things; unlike Raoul and Christine, there is no pre-existing relationship between Caralisa and Michaeljohn, and his instant declarations of love (literally not five minutes after he meets her) clue the reader in that this may not be the most lasting or solid of relationships. There's no demonizing of the poor boy, however, as so often happens in versions of the story that favor the Phantom; rather, he's simply starry-eyed and as innocent as Caralisa herself, and the two of them do enjoy a very fairy-tale courtship and romance indeed before things go askew later in the novel. He lacks motivation and a good deal of common sense, but along with his innocent and barely grown-up aura, that gives him a cute recognizability when compared to Leroux's original character, even with the removal of their childhood romance rendering him the "interloper" since Caralisa already has an acquaintance with the Count.

 

Where changes to Raoul's character in order to make him less desirable as an object of romance are usually to be viewed with suspicion, this one was done subtly and without resorting to cheap tricks; in fact, it reads more like an alternative interpretation of Raoul's and Christine's relationship than an alteration seeking to support a romance with the Phantom. I have to assume that this is the reason it doesn't bother me, because for the life of me, I could not get properly mad about it. Michaeljohn and Caralisa were adorable together, but they just didn't quite gel, and it's nice to see a love triangle where one leg isn't disqualified for Being Bad but rather just because even with the best intentions, the relationship wasn't fulfilling.
 
The Count's melodramatic soliloquy at the end of the chapter, wherein he admits to himself that he has fallen in love with Caralisa and bemoans the mysterious fate that keeps him chained to a dark underworld, resenting her for her brightness even as he realizes he longs for her, should also have annoyed me, but it didn't. It was actually way more tasteful than I'm making it sound.


Chapter 4: 


In contrast to the nasty, nasty churchmen in the first few chapters, most of whom hang out in the village and in their big, fancy cathedral, the old monks of the run-down old abbey are kindly and godly, which rerouted the book from "the Church is evil because Reasons" to simply portraying church-affiliated greed and social class as negative while humble and proletariot-associated church officials are positive. Caralisa prefers the place, thinking that it looks more like "a place to talk to a carpenter's son", which is a nice evocative phrase. Caralisa is obviously and unquestionably not only pure of heart (in context of the story, this means Nice, Kind, and Polite and she Really Means It, Too), but religiously devout as well; after giving her confession to the old monks, she experiences a spiritual uplifting that says without a doubt that she is not only devoted to her religion, but joyful about it as well.
 
Michaeljohn spends most of this chapter and the next languishing in decorous dismay over his missing lady-love, whose name he still doesn't know. The moping doesn't do much except to establish him as very much a lovestruck boy, in contrast to the Count's adult, commanding presence.


Chapter 5:


The Count, when he spirits Caralisa away for another music session, claims that he sings "like a frog", which is an obvious (and cute!) reference to the ventriloquism shenanigans in Leroux's novel and his replacement of Carlotta's voice with the croaking of a toad. It turns out that he can sing passably, though, just like Caralisa, he doesn't have a performance voice, another neat touch when the Phantom character is usually the superlative vocal performer. While he teaches her to write her compositions down, however, he produces a violin, much to my delight, as Leroux's original Phantom played the violin in the haunting Resurrection of Lazarus scene as well as using the instrument to remind Christine of her father.
 
Ashe's dialogue, when not plagued by modern vernacular that makes me a little cross-eyed, is quite engaging and has a good rhythm to it; she does an especially fine job of conveying the characters' relationship through conversation without having to cram a lot of exposition into it to gum things up.
 
Michaeljohn (whose name, incidentally, makes me think of the 1983 film in which the Raoul character was named Michael) pulls off some newspaper hijinks and posts a secret ad to Caralisa, hoping to get her to rendezvous with him; while the attempt is unsuccessful due to the Count's interference, the method of contact (which he will use again later in the book, as well) is very reminiscent of the newspaper ads used by the Persian and the managers to contact Erik in Leroux's novel.


Chapter 6: 


After a discombobulating moment when the Count accused Caralisa of being good at "taking a torch to [his] balls" (bruh), I settled in to do some more in-depth examination of the sources for this mish-mash of an interpretation. Michaeljohn's innocent, devoted portrayal seems to be drawn most closely from Leroux's novel; in fact, despite the intense liberties taken with the plot, there seems to be more in common here with the original book than there is with later adaptations of it.

 

Initially, I thought that most of the Count's more attractive characteristics - his warm body and sex appeal, his non-skeleton-ness, the mask that covers only his eyes and nose rather than his whole face - indicated an influence from the Lloyd Webber musical, and that still might be true. However, it occurred to me later that the Count might have more in common with the troubled Phantom from the 1989 Little/Englund film; that character was tall and attractive, with many qualities of a rake but only one woman that he truly loved, and the whole devil-pact thing will come up later in the novel as a serious problem for the Count. Englund's Phantom and the Count also share the apparent lack of an operatic voice, and both prefer the violin as their instrument of seduction. They're both in the habit of killing off muggers and other people who prey on the weak.  Even their preferred mode of dress is identical (down to those delicious riding boots!); the only thing missing is the creepy flesh-sown mask that Englund's character uses, which would be somewhat counterproductive and out of character here. There's no way to tell for certain, but I'd certainly be excited to discover a romantic interpretation based at least partially on that version. It certainly had potential for pity for and interest in the character, despite the visceral gore factor.
 
There are also a number of nods to Gounod's Faust, the centerpiece opera in Leroux's novel, to be found in Ashe's book. Most notably, all the students at the masquerade dress up as Dr. Faustus (which doesn't seem like the world's most exciting costume to me, but you do you, literature students), and Michaeljohn uses this name to identify himself in his beseeching newspaper pleas to his beloved. Again, this could be borrowed from Leroux's original novel, from the 1989 film (with its distinctly Faustian demonic pact and its use of the same opera), or from both.
 
As the characters are finally fleshed out here, they're at their most enjoyable. Ashe excels in making these familiar people not only interesting, but in improving on a modern reader's ability to relate to them and appreciate their situations. It's no small feat, even with all the liberties she's taken with plot and setting.


Chapter 7:


This chapter is a romp. There's a briefly sober interlude at the beginning, in which a sort of clergyman Jack the Ripper kills several young girls before being found dead in the river; the locals assume that the Count, their guardian ghost from the haunted ruins, killed the man off to stop the bloodshed. While Ashe is nice enough not to pursue the matter and beat us over the head with the Obvious Stick, it's still not hard to figure out that the Count probably did kill the guy, though his motives remain a mystery (probably altruistic in some way). This is a very common change often made to the Phantom character: by making his murders all justifiable, either because they were self-defense or because they were just bad people anyway, the Phantom's character is no longer a bloodthirsty killer but a noble avenger. Since this story is not trying to establish the Phantom character as a fearsome or ghoulish character, making his kills noble ones slots right in with viewing him in a more heroic light.
 
After that bit, however, comes the hilarity. Based on the little snippets of story she told him, the Count has had Caralisa's little songs made up into a show, and takes her out to the debut of her own musical (which nobody knows what to do with, since it's not a play and not an opera and good lord, where are our standards?). Now, of course, the word "musical" wasn't used in this sense until the early twentieth century, but that little anachronism almost didn't make it into this review because it was so eclipsed when, a page later, Caralisa attempted to get rid of her friends by explaining that she felt ill because she was "on the rag". Also probably late nineteenth century at the earliest, and I just... in all the flowery loveliness of this book's prose, you didn't want to invent a beautiful euphemism for that? I feel cheated.
 
ANYWAY. The rest of the chapter is pure Lloyd-Webber-homage, ranging from good-natured fun-poking to outright mockery. It is both fond and wicked and both facets are totally hilarious. Despite the overwhelming emotional response of an audience that loved the opening performance, the critics absolutely despise it and decry it as untalented hackery that panders to the lowest common denominator and has no actual musical value to speak of. Having heard just such phrases frequently applied to Lloyd Webber's musicals, the entire time she was reading through her stack of reviews, I was stuffing my face with pretzels so I wouldn't giggle and get busted for reading at work. Even funnier, at the end of the litany Ashe takes the opportunity to poke fun at the literary community's historically disdainful treatment of the romance genre and women's publications when every single women's magazine declares the musical to be brilliant while all the "serious" publications angrily insist that it, and everyone who likes it, is full of drivel.

(Incidentally, this is a common feature of romance novels in the 80s and 90s. Authors were majority women, and knew that their readers were going to be almost exclusively women, so you'll run into a surprising number of fun feminist moments and concepts just because for once there weren't any editors saying, "Don't put that in, it'll put off the male readers.")


Chapter 8:


One of the facets of Caralisa's relationship with the Count that I enjoyed the most was the realistic way that Ashe manages to balance her heroine between sexual attraction to the man and a sense of daughterly adoration. Half the time she wants to jump into his breeches, and the other half she's thinking that he's like the father she never had. This is usually creepy - hell, it is creepy even so, because it's hard not to have that whole paternalistic culture thing not be creepy - but it both reads as a realistic portrayal of a young woman grappling with that cultural expectation and trying to feel her way around it, and as a strong connection to the original story with the Phantom's willingness to riff on Christine's memories of her father to manipulate her feelings. It was a very skillful rendering of the confusion in Christine's mind in the original tale, I thought, and I had no trouble believing Caralisa's wistful wish that the Count were there to give her away as she walked down the aisle during her wedding to Michaeljohn (and after all, Leroux's Erik wanted an invitation to Christine's and Raoul's wedding, and Kay's novel included a desire to walk her down the aisle and give her away as well, if I remember correctly).
 
Oh, yes, Michaeljohn. He does eventually manage to find her, by chance since he sees her out the window of his carriage, and after a whirlwind romance the two attempt to get married. Unfortunately for Michaeljohn, his family, and the expensive and venerable church furnishings, a huge black swan crashes through the window into the cathedral and manages to panic the guests into a stampede and set most of the cathedral on fire. The Church is unamused (and has long thought the black swan to be an agent of the Devil anyway, which is historically accurate - Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries were discombobulated to discover black swans in Australia and immediately associated them with evil and corruption in opposition to white swans as ancient symbols of purity and goodness in the West), and poor Michaeljohn is left wondering what the hell just happened because the Count whisks Caralisa off from all the confusion and spirits her off to his home.


Chapter 9:


There's a brief, entertaining moment at the beginning of the chapter, which entails Caralisa and the Count arguing over her wish to return to the city and try to marry Michaeljohn again. His affronted, "I beg your pardon," when she says that he's like a father to her is pure comedy genius. But the real meat of this chapter is the intensely emotional and resonant visit by the Count, alone, to the old abbey for his own confession. The reader is finally given concrete evidence (though there have been plenty of clues) that something is not quite right about him; he is truly convinced that he is a demon, and his heartbreaking despair at being abandoned by God mirrors Erik's own feelings in Leroux's novel. The sentiment that he is barred from Heaven through no fault of his own, simply for not being human - as God himself created him - is a cruel irony that he cannot bear, begging for absolution until he finally flees the abbey in anguish. The scene is emotionally poignant, especially as the old monk - no less despairing of this particular turn of fate than the unfortunate Count - murmurs after him, "Go with God... I cannot help you."
 
There's also organ-playing in the church, though at no point does the Count ever feel the need to sit down and bust out some mad tunes.


Chapter 10:


All of this naturally leads us to Caralisa fulfilling one of the most important roles that Christine filled in Leroux's original novel: namely, she is the confessor and priest who can absolve the Count, through her innocent love (which is, of course, an analogue for Christ's love, though that angle is much more downplayed in this novel than in Leroux's), just as Christine was the one avenue of salvation for Erik. Ashe's entire novel has featured an emphasis on confession and forgiveness, which provided a background against which the Count's recent meltdown is much more poignant and Caralisa's importance to him now much more urgent for the reader.


Chapter 12:


A clergyman whose advances Caralisa spurned (well, not really spurned... she'd have had to be aware of them to do that, which she wasn't) decides to excommunicate her and have her burned as a demon-worshiper. His reasoning is silly - she has red hair and that's the color of the devil, she hears "voices" and writes her music from them, a swan crashed her wedding when she approached the holy altar so God must not want her there, etc. - but in the time period and world that Ashe has set up, it doesn't really matter. The Church is all-powerful in these matters, and the mob is accordingly only too glad to burn the heretic once the doomful sentence of excommunication is handed down.

 

The scene reinforces Caralisa's character; she isn't worrying about being burned at the stake, or about being lied about, or about any of the worldly concerns of the situation. Rather, she's terrified for her immortal soul, and collapses in utter despair after excommunication, believing herself now to be consigned to the flames of Hell. She believes in the Church absolutely, and her distress is heart-rending (and all the more so because she's innocent, of course). Again, I really wanted more from the novel here to talk about these religious issues and address the ideas of sin and redemption, but every time it gets close it veers off again.


Chapter 13: 


My only note here is that Caralisa's solitary captivity in the Count's crumbling castle on the heights is really the first time I've seen all that much influence from the Beauty & the Beast myth. Most of the novel seems to be drawn either from the Phantom story or from the fertile imagination of Ashe herself, with few elements that go directly to the French fairy tale.
 
Unfortunately, here's the deal-breaker for many of us, one of the worst of old-timey romance novel tropes: rape that is somehow okay. The Count sexually assaults Caralisa in this chapter, tearing her clothes off and touching her inappropriately; while he eventually realizes that he's being an unmitigated bastard and stops before actual penetration, it's still a terrifying and horrific moment, and he doesn't fix it by realizing he should stop and then eventually fleeing the scene after thundering some very Leroux-esque things about how her wedding night will be tonight. This is, to make an understatement, deeply uncool, and makes it very hard to get back on board with the Count as the endgame love interest, because it's difficult not to wish Caralisa was actually taking a torch to his balls with all due speed.

Caralisa is well and truly terrified and traumatized by the experience, which at least puts the book above other romances that tend to present this as normal and understandable male behavior, but even that is spoiled by a little bit of that "oh but it secretly feels good!" thing going on, which makes her feel dirty and even more frightened and makes me cranky about literally everything (not that this isn't a thing that assault survivors grapple with, but Ashe isn't going to spend any time actually dealing with it - it's a signal that actually She Wanted It in literary shorthand). The only saving grace is that all the characters are at least aware and acknowledge that this was Wrong and Very Bad and that the Count has No Excuse Whatsoever; Caralisa leaves his castle that night, and he languishes in his inner rooms and beats himself up about being a horrible person and making the biggest mistake of his life. No one attempts to say that "It's okay, because they're really in love!", which sometimes is the low bar that we sadly have to be grateful for reaching.


Chapter 14:


The big black swan that crashed Caralisa's wedding to Michaeljohn shows up and guides her out of the castle, and she manages to make her way back to her frantic fiancé. The Count, unbeknownst to her, traded in the favor that the Prince owed him and asked the secular ruler to contact someone in Byzantion (not Byzantium... it's basically Rome, the seat of the Church) and have the excommunication turned over and the troublesome clergyman removed, thus rendering Larissa safe for her again. Unaware of this, she demands that Michaeljohn marry her at once and then flee the country with her, but as everyone's in the middle of packing carriages, she has a minor epiphany regarding poor Michaeljohn and their relationship. (Given what just happened to her, it's hard not to suspect that the Count's assault may have caused her some serious trouble with any potentially sexual relationship right now.) 

 

This particular version of Raoul, as I noted earlier, is even more "childlike", by the definition of the novel itself, than the original; he still has his wealth and title, but no military training and no experience, and rather than rushing to defend her as he did in the original novel, he instead dithered around elsewhere hoping that the authorities would something (although you can make a strong case that wielding political influence to get actual results is doing something, even if the book doesn't seem to think so). The question that most romantic versions like to set up, that of which relationship - Christine and Erik or Christine and Raoul - is the more valid and emotionally binding, is a much more unbalanced one as a result of this portrayal of the character. It is therefore little surprise that Caralisa realizes that Michaeljohn, while perfectly sincere, is suffering from an innocent, romantic delusion of love, an infatuation that does not include the real Caralisa but only his dream image of her.
 
Just as in Leroux's novel, Caralisa is the character who achieves the most growth and maturity over the course of events, coming from an extremely childish, somewhat selfish girl to a woman capable of making her own choices and understanding, not only the world around her, but her own self as well. The final choice she makes is different, but I couldn't get pissed off about it. Ashe did too good a job of making it the natural conclusion of the events and character progressions in her novel: Caralisa tells Michaeljohn, tenderly, that she cannot marry him, and then leaves Larissa entirely to go start a new life with one of her old schoolgirl friends. Her repeated thought on the Count as the chapter draws to a close is a common one in the Phantom story and the source of much of its emotional resonance throughout the last century, though usually pointed at the Phantom himself: "It was a great tragedy that she could not love him."
 
I would have loved for the book to have ended here. It was a perfect conclusion, one that made me love the characters all the more and appreciate the tragedy of the situation fully (not to mention being very reminiscent of the 1943 Lubin/Rains film and its Christine choosing to embark on her career alone at the end!). However, this is a romance novel, and there is an obligatory happily ever after that has to occur or the editor receives a lot of very angry letters. So, even though I was happy and ready to stop, there is a further chapter.


Chapter 15:


There are a couple of sex scenes in this, by the way. You didn't hear about them because they weren't hilariously bad, though they did feature some of the most purple, madly over-analogized imagery ever. But I will say that I'm impressed by the level of penis detail Ashe goes for. Most romances I've read like to skirt around the penis issue, but there's description just right out there here. Possibly I have just been reading too-vanilla romances.
 
In case anyone has doubts, Caralisa does in fact return to the castle on the heights and finds the Count, who is moping the hardcore mope of someone who has made his own bed and finds it really, really uncomfortable. And of course she admits to loving him, and of course he is stunned and flabbergasted because not only did he achieve his own redemption by letting her go, but hey, she came back and he gets her, too! The issue of his assault is dealt with, though not in great detail, and both characters acknowledge that it was inexcusable and will never be repeated. I still wish she'd decided to jettison him along with Michaeljohn and start over elsewhere, but at least addressing the unacceptability of the situation and the fact that it had to be dealt with before there could be any hope of them having a relationship in the future was handled.
 
Oh, by the way... if you hadn't figured it out yet (I figured it out on page 19 of the book - it wasn't particularly subtle), the Count and the big black swan are one and the same. He is, for lack of a better term, a were-swan. I'd been waiting the entire book for someone to explain what exactly that was about, so this coda chapter does have a purpose for me after all. The Count (whose real name is apparently Laertes) is descended from Leda, who in Greek myth was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan. Her descendants all have the ability to shift back and forth, though many of them suffer from deformities as a result of their bizarre bloodline. The Count himself has long black swan talons on his fingers and toes, prompting him to always wear gloves and boots... and, of course, there's the mask. Readers may have already figured out that the ornate black-feathered mask is actually his face and not a mask at all, but it's still a nicely creative twist on the original deformity (though, like most romance versions, Ashe's novel doesn't even try to make him as horrifying as the original; however, the idea of him being feared is extremely downplayed in this version, to the point where it's almost irrelevant). This makes the Count actually a demigod, which is a new one as far as Phantom versions are concerned; in the rigid framework of the Church, which definitely wouldn't acknowledge Zeus as a legitimate deity, that really does make him descended from demons. He's also immortal, which is somewhat pesky, and Helen of Troy is totally his mom (it's not mentioned, but Laertes is the father of Odysseus in Greek myth, so the star-studded ancient cast is in full force). How's that for a solution to the "is he a warlock or a demon" question that nobody saw coming?
 
Normally, I would rattle on about Greek myths and their resonance with the Phantom story, but since this particular one has nothing whatsoever to do with the Phantom story and everything to do with CLASSICAL LITERATURE SOLUTIONS TO PLOT PROBLEMS, it would be pointless. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. It's always nice to see someone returning to the classics. Helen actually shows up to wish her son well on his wedding day, and it was ironically entertaining to realize that the horrible noise at their wedding was the rest of his family. Swans, as most bird-fanciers will tell you, have terrible singing voices. "Sing like a frog", indeed. (Why is the Count a black swan, though? I mean, I know the answer is "so he can be mysterious and ambiguous", but like... black swans are not native to pseudo-Europe?)
 
I almost groaned aloud when the other swans were bugging Helen to make Caralisa immortal so that the Count wouldn't be all emo in eighty years when she inevitably died; it's one of those big problems that could have so much tension and relevant development, and a quick solution robs us of that even in theory. However, while Helen admitted that there was a way to do it, she all but totally refused to actually do anything, so sequel potential that didn't interfere with the happy ending was preserved.
 
I have a speculation for this book. It includes an attempted witch-burning, a ton of evil religions figures, and even Caralisa's snort-inducing musing, as she contemplated his mask, that he couldn't have anything under there worse than a birthmark and really, who would care? Taken altogether... could it be that Ashe might be poking a little fun at our dear friend Stuart's 1991 novel Night of the Phantom, that source of deliciously bizarre ridiculousness? There's no proof, but I'm just saying.
 
This is the only romance novel ever published by Rebecca Ashe (not, probably, her real name); the internet, in its infinite wisdom, seems to think she might be one and the same as science fiction writer R. M. Meluch.

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