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Book cover art by George Barr.
Review © 1997 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Another highly romanticized fantasy rooted in Graeco-Roman mythology, Cry Silver Bells was Swann's swan song; he passed away shortly before its publication. The story concerns two cousins, Lordon and Hora — one a thief, the other a prostitute — who have fled their homeland of Egypt to start a new life in the seacoast town of Psiera in Minoan Crete. A botched robbery by Lordon gets the pair exiled from the city, where they are forced to cross the Country of the Beasts. Here they fall in with Zoe, a dryad, and Silver Bells, a minotaur. Unfortunately, a blossoming attraction between Lordon and Zoe angers Chiron, the Great Minotaur, prompting him to banish the two humans from the Country of the Beasts. But as they reach the sea, Lordon, Hora and Silver Bells are captured by Tritons, who sell them to slave traders, who in turn sell them to a wealthy gamemaster in the nearby city of Phaistos for use — in whatever capacity (sacrifice?) — in Phaistos' upcoming games.

I find Swann's magical, mythic fantasies to be highly enjoyable when I allow my imagination to render their various creatures of legend as Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animated sculptures, rather than modern high-tech CGI beasties a la Jurassic Park. Swann and Harryhausen (and here I go again comparing a book to a movie — grumble) seem to be kindred creative spirits, as Swann's novels carry the same level of appeal as films like Jason and the Argonauts or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

However, it's also true Swann's novels, however rich in unabashed wonders, are pretty slight stuff. And because of their slightness, they are often aloof. It is difficult to develop any real emotional bond with characters who are so purely mythical, and with whom we spend such a brief time. Two hours or less and a Swann book is over, and Cry Silver Bells is no different. In addition, this novel has the odd narrative stunt of switching back and forth between the first-person perspectives of two separate characters. It doesn't add any level of confusion, but seems unnecessary. However, Cry Silver Bells doesn't pile on the goofiness like The Minikins of Yam (the humor here is subtler, closer to genuine wit), and the finale is moving.

Throughout his career, Swann certainly had it in him to turn his endless fascination with the gods, goddesses and beasts of mythology towards a major fantasy epic. Yet he was content to spin his short, witty, occasionally cocksure little tales with all the light touch of a pianist so familiar with the keyboard that the songs just flow effortlessly, though not necessarily always with great inspiration. (And the reality of publishing in Swann's day is that the market was less receptive to phonebook-sized epics than it is now.) Warts and all, though, one fact holds true: Swann's novels were unlike any published before or since, and they're fun enough to make me really yearn for the masterpiece he never wrote.