Mr. Crowe was once famed for his gifts―unaccountable gifts, known only to the members of a secretive order. Protected and privileged, he was courted by countesses and great men of letters. But he has long since retreated from that glittering world, living alone but for Eustace and Clara, his mysterious young ward. He has been content to live quietly, his great library gathering dust and his once magnificent gardens growing wild. Until now.
Beguilingly fantastical and written with great visual acuity, it is almost impossible to read it without trying to cast its central characters in your mind ... despite its elevated central theme — wisely only hinted at, rather than laboured over — this is overwhelmingly a work of action: a fabulist thriller, in fact. Kinetic and pacy, it is a page-turner in the very best sense of the term, with a central scene of extraordinary heart-in-mouth excitement. Much of this is due to O’Donnell’s ability to create strong images with just a few well-chosen words, allowing events to unfold quickly without getting bogged down in description. He is particularly good at small, visual details: the tics and gestures that reveal character or intention, create a beat between scenes, or bring dialogue to life. Despite the measured elegance of its prose, this really is a novel that one sees in the mind’s eye, rather than reads ... Where it may frustrate fans of books like Jonathan Strange is in the way its magical cosmology is alluded to but not fully revealed — something that risks leaving some readers unsure at its close as to what exactly has taken place, and why ... Still, 'Always leave them wanting more' is famously good advice when it comes to the silver screen, and given the potential for a further book set in the world of Clara, Eustace and Mr Crowe it would not be surprising if the reading public clamours for a second instalment of this vividly imagined and deeply pleasurable gothic fantasy — not to mention a film.
... O’Donnell’s strange, tense and utterly beautiful novel The Maker of Swans will haunt you. It dances over the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy, but you’ll hardly notice. You’ll be too busy sinking deeper into its inescapable grasp ... This book is far more expansive than its 368 pages might suggest, and all credit goes to O’Donnell for cramming it full with as many ideas as he did. Alongside the magical elements are questions on the nature of the universe, on art and beauty, on instinct and knowledge. O’Donnell’s complex and agile prose jumps between dreamlike mysticism and terse, suspenseful action almost without warning. He knows when to expand language and when to contract it, when to throw in the kitchen sink and when to hold back ... Two key elements hold everything together. The first is how O’Donnell drives the story forward like a thriller, giving the more abstract elements a solid foundation. Even as things get stranger and stranger, the core plot is straightforward ... Let The Maker of Swans invade you. Be challenged by it. Let it wash over you. If you like beautiful things, read this book.
At its best, the prose in O’Donnell’s first novel is glorious, combining an ear for deep cadences of language with a phenomenal acuity of vision ... The narrative makes no distinction between events of importance and incidental actions. Everything is described in the same luxuriant, ponderous prose style. Later on, Clara takes two full pages to focus a pair of opera glasses – a skilful, even lyrical evocation of the experience of getting to grips with binoculars, but the activity is of no great consequence, nothing is at stake and we learn nothing about her character ... While it would be gauche to demand that every sentence be shovelled like so much coke into the great furnace of plot, the density of information begins to tell. And while some sections are well observed, others are merely overlong, the narrative sagging into ersatz pastiche ... This is partly a function of O’Donnell’s decision to hold back for as long as possible the exact nature of Mr Crowe’s talents and the secret order to which he belongs. The result is page after page of characters speaking in Zennish innuendos, in a manner that does not excite the reader’s intrigue so much as strains credulity. Even the characters seem exhausted by this ... In moments like these you suspect O’Donnell of not playing fair with the reader. It’s one thing to reference tantalising morsels of nuggets not fully explained, quite another to make your characters so coy that they struggle to understand each other ... But then, when the prose is good, it’s so very good that you feel like an ingrate for complaining. O’Donnell has a remarkable aptitude for capturing a character in a single action ... O’Donnell is clearly a major talent, but this effort suffers from a preponderance of nest-circling and a dearth of eggs.