Sisters Blanca and Roja del Cisne have always known that one of them is doomed to become a swan. It's been this way for generations and generations of their family — there is always a "good" sister who will live out her human life, and the other, darker sister, who will fly away, never to see her family again. The strange and magical nature of their family keeps them apart from the rest of the town where they live, and it's so difficult for them to assimilate that their parents eventually take them out of high school.
Even though Roja has always known that she is the dark sister, and therefore the one the swans will take, Blanca refuses to accept it. She's certain there must be some way to confuse their fate, or, if all else fails, to offer herself in her sister's place. When the swans arrive on an autumn day to take their tithe, Blanca and Roja are left alone to face their fates — but then two boys they remember from their time in school wander out of the woods and into the story. Barclay has spent a year as a bear, roaming the forest in the wake of a violent family conflict. Page, alienated by parents who don't understand his genderqueer identity, followed Barclay into the woods, intent on helping his friend. Now, after a year of being missing persons, they both find themselves caught up in the del Cisne family curse.
As a child who loved fairy tales and then grew up to be an adult who studies them, I am undeniably drawn in by the language of transformation that bleeds across these pages. McLemore pulls imagery from her source material without committing to a true folkloric narrative, preferring to focus on the inner turmoil of the characters. In fairy tales, we get little exploration of personality or human emotion, but Blanca & Roja's gaze is almost exclusively turned inward.
This exploration of character is where McLemore's writing truly shines. Roja is in some ways a classic prickly girl, but over the course of the book, we see her pain laid bare. Her intense struggle with menstrual pain is especially relatable and serves as a heartbreaking metaphor for the matrilineal curse that afflicts her family.
Blanca, meanwhile, lets us see just how exhausting it is to be the good girl who always does what is expected and holds everyone else together. She reaches a point where she can no longer clearly see how to be what is needed — until Page shows her that it's okay to want something for herself.
If I had one wish to make for Blanca & Roja, it would be to experience more of the practical side of these struggles. The story treads the transmutable landscape of magical realism, and the nature of the genre is there in the name — magical realism seamlessly blends supernatural and mystical events with the prosaic and even harsh daily functions of life. It is the juxtaposition of the wonderful and the mundane that makes the genre sing.
When we do see little glimpses of the more mundane aspects of the characters' lives, like their memories of their time attending high school, it all seems to exist on the other side of the looking glass, too remote and misty to root the narrative in realism. But at the same time, there are too many modern references to allow the story to exist in a purely fairy tale space. For this reason, the book itself ends up feeling like a creature caught in the middle of a transformation — it is neither girl nor swan nor boy nor bear, but all of these things at once.
For some, this will keep Blanca & Roja at arm's length. But for others, for those who like to dwell in the liminal spaces of stories, the nature of the tale will echo the story it sets out to tell, creating a vivid and emotional dreamscape of blood, feathers, and apples.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.