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"The Iron Dragon's Daughter" has been published in the Fantasy Masterwork series and very deservedly so. It's an excellent novel, with a powerful, almost brutal vision and quality of writing transcending the confines of the genre.
It starts so: "The changeling's decision to steal a dragon and escape was born, though she did not know it then, the night the children met to plot the death of their supervisor". This sentence immediately gives the reader initial clues (changelings, dragons - fantasy; slave children labour - dark tones) and provides a brilliant hook: wouldn't you want to know what happens next? Don't you like the rhythm and the economy of the words?
Jane steals - or is stolen by - one of the war dragons. She hides away in a small hamlet, goes to school with Faerie children hiding her changeling identity, becomes an efficient thief, befriends a Wicker Queen destined to die on the pyre, then goes to a university to study alchemy. The book isn't particularly long and the changes of scene could have made it disjointed, but they don't: it works perfectly, adding a clear bildungsroman angle to the normal fantasy motifs. The main character's development, sexually, emotionally and intellectually, is as important as her search for ways to return to our world. There is also a painfully poignant love angle, mixed with graphic sex later on when Jane grows up a bit.
Those wanting a label could think of "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" as a punk fantasy, I have seen it called anti-fantasy for the way it subverts the classic Tolkienian motifs: it takes place in Faerie, but this alternative world runs on a combination of magic, alchemy and high technology. It reminded me of the famous saying by Arthur C. Clarke, about high technology being indistinguishable from magic - but even in a magical land, why wouldn't there be technology in the world in which magic is a reality, and alchemy rather than quantum physics explains the nature of things? And if yes, what it would be like? And there is technology indeed, with shopping malls in which you spend 2 days but emerge only few minutes after you entered, with iron dragons, sentient but manufactured war machines, an awesome fusion of the AI technology and alchemical magic.
A lot has been said about the seeming subversivness of Swanwick's elves being the nihilistic and cruel overlords they are, but this so only in the face of recent hegemony of Tolkien's vision. The folklore elves of Faerie, who are traditionally responsible for changelings, were often seen along those lines, and even within the classics of fantasy, elves in the Jack Vance's "Lyonesse" are not exactly benign and nor are the ones in "Three Hearts and Three Lions".
The world in which Jane is growing up is brutal and nihilistic, more brutal than ours and this cyber-punk-like brutality is not due to the fact that it's more medieval, though the rigid social structure with the unpredictable, fickle, decadent elven lords at the pinnacle is reminiscent of feudal systems. But the school reeks of early 20th century regimentation, while the factory is a dark-satanic-mill incarnate, with hints of labour camps. The university is very modern, with academic in-fighting, sex, drugs, parties, clubbing and booze.
It's all executed in sharp, emotionally powerful imagery. The feasts, in particular; with a Wicker Maiden given media celebrity cultish status and her demise filmed like Big Brother evictions and hundreds of people dying in the anarchic week of the Teind when the irrationality of the mob overcomes the city resulting in the population getting, almost literally, decimated.
The world holds together pretty well, and it's described in a confident, elegant prose. It is consistently seen through the eyes of Jane and the way it's seen changes as she grows from a crafty child to a rather innocent adolescent to an intelligent, mercenary and very lonely young adult. This consistently maintained, subjective point of view is on of the strongest points of the novel. It can be even all seen as an allegory for growing up in our reality, though I think it would be sadly limiting point of view.
Swanwick uses a combination of features from real history, myth and folklore to create a supremely convincing vision of a culture both savage and sophisticated, a vision pulsating with raw emotion thanks to the point of view from which we experience it. The characters are well drawn and multi-dimensional. The only thing that lets the "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" down is its ending - a little bit to mystical, too vague and to psychoanalytical for my liking.
Fantasy can be a terribly derivative genre, by definition rehashing the same story lines and settings all over again. "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" goes far beyond that. Its powerful emotion and the bildungsroman aspect would make it particularly attractive to young adults/old teenagers, although I enjoyed it immensely despite being closer to 40 than 20. It's one of the books whose vision stays with you for a good while. I read it good few week ago and the feel of the Swanwick's world and Jane's torment is still clear in my mind. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Gollancz; (14 Oct 2004)
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This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk
I must confess that fantasy literature is something that I lost the taste for many years ago, having found it increasingly cliched becoming almost a parody of itself. Maybe I was reading the wrong books but everything I read seemed to contain the same elements, rag to riches heroes, powerful mages, a quasi-medieval European backdrop, dramatic landscapes of the type that New Zealand provided for the LOTR films, wily thieves and mischievous halflings (must nt say hobbits ) enchantments, clear cut good and evil and all the usual trappings. After finding myself short of something to read I found amongst a pile of books, probably belonging to an ex-lodger (its one of those houses where people come and go but the books only ever seem to increase) a novel with an intriguing cover. A mechanical dragon flying over a modern looking urban sprawl and subtitles an alchemical fantasy,(dooyoo's image shows a different cover so you will have to trust me on this) The Iron Dragons Daughter by Michael Swanwick seemed to possess and intriguing image and so I was re-acquainted with the genre. Right from the opening few pages I knew I was on to a winner, this was a writer whose style and writing ability, vocabulary and turn of phrase was so much better than anything that I had read in a long time, but more than that this was a writer with vision, a writer who was as far removed from the usual fantasy fare as, say the film Memento is from its genre of modern film noir, but thats a whole other story.
Jane is an adolescent human working in a factory, a dragon factory at that. Its a Dickensian backdrop of indentured work house orphans slaving for long hours in blasted furnace rooms and industrial decay, an environment that mixes the magical powers and arcane arts with printed circuitry and high tech engineering to created mechanical dragons who are sort of the jet fighter of their day. These dragons are a mixture of artificial intelligence, human pilots, magical essence, turbines, gears and motors, the precise balance of which you are never sure of, just how alive and how created they are is never fully revealed. If the setting seems futuristic, the denizens of the world are not. A mix of Elvin children, sprites, pixies and strange otherworldly creations fill these bleak rooms, a collection of characters that would seem more at home in Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream than in the industrial landscape that is offered up to the reader. Janes fortunes change and she eventually finds herself out of the factory and thrust into a world of schools and shopping malls, thievery and adolescent issues. Again even on the outside of the factory there is a fantastic mix of settings. Modern shopping malls are peopled by magical store owners, schools are run by strange fey creatures and brutal trolls and the melting pot of worlds, times and geography keeps you from defining the genre. Landfill tips sit next to alchemy shops, high rise buildings host pagan rituals, contain magical portals and have talking gargoyles wandering over their concrete and steel exteriors, the innocence of youth is entwined with, drugs, sex and emotional upheaval.
It is a world that has no real past, nor seemingly any future, not ones that we are ever a party to anyway. For all its modernity and urbanisation there are some ancient themes running through the story, the idea of power through knowing peoples true names is always promoted, the theme of lovers reincarnated in different guises to be thrown together across many lives is also central as is the idea of pre-ordained destiny, and always in the back ground is the Goddess, real or not, we just dont know. There are many themes here that we would call Pagan, which is usual for the genre, but to see these ideas played out in the harsh urban decay of a world that in many ways is familiar to us all is an interesting concept. There is also a dream like quality to the story, often imagined worlds and dreamed people collide with the main story making you question where this reality starts and ends. There is also a dark under current to Janes existence, as if she doesnt belong here, as if she is subconsciously trying to get back home, her dreams of her mother may be memories or wishful thinking we dont know, but they do seem to be important. It is also a book that in its last chapter turns on its head, in the same way that films such as The Sixth Sense caused you to rethink the main characters position in all of the scenes, the conclusion of this book will have you questioning, who much of this is real, is it all an analogy for a different story, and if so what to those analogies actually represent.
All in all I found this to be a fantastic read, one that restored my faith in the fantasy genre. It is a vague story but one that seems to be written in great detail, like looking at something under a microscope and missing whats going on in the broader world surrounding it. It is a story that seems to be a mix of all times and genres, flirting with many and sitting comfortably in none. It is also a human story, dealing with inner struggles and turmoils rather than the clash of armies and the fall of empires and all that makes for a refreshing change. I mentioned that there is a very Dickensian feel to the setting, especially in the earlier part of the book, but the language is also reminiscent of his style, though more accessible. I also found in the language, the same thing that drew me to Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghastseries, that dark, slightly older world style of writing. Its a book that almost demands a new genre to be created for it, though I dont know what you would call it. One where the past sits entwined with the future, faith confronts secularism, the otherworld meets stark reality and the lives of the strange folk of this strange environment seem to have the same concerns as you and I making us able to understand them and see them as real people in their own right. A challenging and thought provoking read but one of the best I have read in a long time.
Michael Swanwick was born in 1950. He is recognised as one of the most powerful and consistently inventive writers of his generation. THE IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award; it was a New York Times Notable Book, as was JACK FAUST. He has been nominated for the Nebula Award more than a dozen times and won a Hugo for his SF novel STATIONS OF THE TIDE. He lives with his wife and son in Philadelphia.