Green Phoenix is Swann's take on Homer, and it is predictably filled to the brim with dryads, centaurs, all the wondrous beasties of ancient myth and legend. Yet it is at the same time one of Swann's more successful novels, featuring both good character development and a narrative that draws you in, rather than keeping you just at arm's length through stylistically self-conscious prose or a too-childlike fascination with the story's Edith Hamilton influences.
Set in the Wanderwood, a piece of land near the mouth of the Tiber, the story stars Mellonia, a dryad whose tribe is charged with killing the Trojan hero Aeneas, reported to be in the vicinity. Horror stories of Aeneas's rapaciousness and duplicity during the Trojan War have reached the terrified dryads' ears. And since they hate humans anyway, particularly men (I kept thinking how several feminists I know might get a kick out of the book's opening chapters), these rumors only serve to fan the flames of hatred and prejudice so that the normally peaceful dryads decide they're quite willing to do unto Aeneas before he does unto them. Mellonia, however, is the kind of dryad who's so peaceful she feels a flower's pain when she plucks it, and she wants proof of Aeneas's alleged evil. So when she meets him and his son Ascanius on the beach, sure enough, they seem okay. But then Ascanius goes and blows that favorable first impression by mistaking Mellonia's centaur friend for a deer and felling him with an arrow. D'oh.
Mellonia vows revenge, but once she sees Aeneas' true remorse over the killing, her mood changes, and, well, as things happen in stories like this, the two fall in love. This leads to the book's most amusing section, as Aeneas and Ascanius learn the truth about the dryads' sacred tree (in which the dryads go to sleep and wake up pregnant), and Aeneas and Mellonia consummate their love (leading to some hilarious banter from Ascanius about sleeping with virgins). Here the humor flows naturally and seems right in place, unlike the awkward "is this intentional or not?" comedy in Swann's later works. Mostly, though, I find it kind of neat that Swann chose to introduce humor into the story right when the romantic part was kicking in. Most other writers might have gotten downright barfatrocious.
But — dear reader, can the love between the dryad and the legendary warrior last? Well now, that's something you'll have to unearth the novel itself to discover. For my part, I was quite pleased with the way Swann crafted this tale. At this point in his career, Swann was at the top of his game, and one can only wonder if, were he writing today (an age when mediocrities think nothing of slamming the market with 900-page, self-satisfied multi-volume "epics"), he would finally have delivered his own Odyssey, a true fantasy classic to be passed down the ages. Alas, Swann proved to be never more than a pleasant diversion — perhaps a key reason all his fanciful stories are long out of print. But he remains a rich if slightly guilty pleasure of mine and many others, and I suspect he will until all these musty DAW paperbacks, and we along with them, have been forgotten by time.