Newest Review: ... 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 &q... more
An Alchemical Fantasy
The Iron Dragon's Daughter - Michael Swanwick
Member Name: steerpyke
The Iron Dragon's Daughter - Michael Swanwick
Advantages: a mix of light and shade, new and old, fantastic style and vocabulary
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 n’t 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 that’s a whole other story.
Jane is an adolescent human working in a factory, a dragon factory at that. It’s 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 Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream” than in the industrial landscape that is offered up to the reader. Jane’s 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 don’t 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 Jane’s existence, as if she doesn’t belong here, as if she is subconsciously trying to get back home, her dreams of her mother may be memories or wishful thinking we don’t 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 what’s 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 turmoil’s 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 “Gormenghast”series, that dark, slightly older world style of writing. It’s a book that almost demands a new genre to be created for it, though I don’t 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.
Summary: restored by faith in the fantasy genre.