________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 8. . . .October 28, 2016


The Swan Riders. (Prisoners of Peace).

Erin Bow.
New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster), 2016.
378 pp., hardcover & eBook, $23.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-4814-4274-9 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4814-4276-3 (eBook).

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Kim Aippersbach.

**** /4



“Seriously? You’re fuzzy on why I hate you?” said Elián.

“Nah, course not,” said Talis, waving a hand. “I had you tortured. I mean, not me personally, but if they’d asked me I would absolutely have signed off. I squeezed Grandma Wilma in that apple press until she popped like a zit. And I turned your girlfriend here into a right little psychopath—no offense, Greta.”

“None taken.”

“On the other hand,” chimed Talis, “I’m an AI whose emotional responses and ethical instincts may or may not be an elaborate self-delusion. I’m a monster. And also, just incidentally, I’m trying to save the world. What’s your excuse, human? What exactly made you decide to get your hands all messy?”

“It’s an experiment,” said Elián, stirring the soup.

“Oh, that’s fine, then,” said Talis. “As long as I got vivisected for

“I want to see if an AI can learn to be human again.”


The Swan Riders continues the dystopian story of The Scorpion Rules, starting right after the end of the first book. Greta has just uploaded her consciousness to become an AI, though she currently still resides in her upgraded body. The transition from organic to inorganic intelligence is a difficult one that not many people have successfully made; every time Greta experiences a powerful emotion or memory, she risks going insane. Talis, the AI ruling the world, wants very much for Greta to succeed. He has lost most of his fellow AIs, and he is lonely.

     Talis and Greta need to journey by horse from the Saskatchewan Prefecture to the AI base in the western mountains. They are accompanied by two Swan Riders, humans who devote themselves to the AIs’ service and have their brains and bodies modified so that an AI can temporarily “ride” them. Talis is currently occupying the body of Rachel, who is the lover of one of their escorts, Francis Xavier.

     The travellers are ambushed by a group of rebels that includes Greta’s friend Elián. Elián stabs Talis to sever the link between his datastore and Rachel’s brain. Talis’s memories and consciousness are still imprinted in her brain, but he now has only this organic self, and Rachel is still inside her brain, too. Greta, meanwhile, has had a swathe of organic memories deleted because they were about to spiral her into insanity. Now she knows she’s missing something, but she doesn’t remember what. “The who of me. The why of me.”

     The Swan Riders joins the canon of science fiction that explores what it means to be human by imagining how artificial intelligence might work. Bow does it brilliantly with a protagonist and narrator who is turning from human into AI, an AI who loses everything artificial about himself, and a cast of characters who cover the spectrum in between.

     As in The Scorpion Rules, the philosophical concepts are brought to life in tense, visceral life-or-death struggles—with each other, with the Saskatchewan winter, and within themselves. Greta, Talis, Elián, Francis Xavier, Rachel are all faced with a series of choices that force them to redefine who they are and what they value. Passion, loyalty, attachment and trust are tested to their breaking points as the characters risk everything to save the ones they love.

     Interlude chapters give us key memories from Talis’s point of view—he and the other AIs taking over the world, the creation of the Swan Riders, the loss of AIs to insanity—in scenes that are equal parts creepy, funny and heartbreaking. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Talis’s exasperated wrestles with morality in the face of humanity’s stupidity and his fellow AIs’ inhumanity.

“I don’t have a quotey voice.”

“You do,” said Evie. “You definitely have a quotey voice.”

“I just blew up Manila, Evangeline. Could we—I don’t know—have a minute of silence or something?”

“Sure!” said Evie.

Exactly 60.00 seconds passed.

“Your quotey voice kind of turns down at the end. Like the opposite of questions.”

     The Swan Riders is full of witty, tense, character-revealing dialog, not to mention hilariously sly details like horses named NORAD and Gordon Lightfoot.

     Bow’s writing is elegant and exact: she illuminates rather than explains the technological and metaphysical complexities that underpin the novel, always bringing every idea back to the impact it has on an individual.

… it was two mirrors reflecting each other. It was feedback squealing through a microphone. A single moment building to an intensity beyond what any psyche could endure.

How could there be no circuit breaker? How could there be no grace?

     The Swan Riders is a gripping science fiction adventure that is also a thought-provoking moral treatise. Sure to be as popular as The Scorpion Rules, it’s worth studying in a classroom because of the questions it raises and because of the skill of its craft.

Highly Recommended.

Kim Aippersbach is a writer, editor and mother of three living in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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