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The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Michael Swanwick, AvoNova, 1994, 424 pp.
How could anyone write a generic "high fantasy" novel after the appearance of such a genre-shattering novel like The Iron Dragon's Daughter? Easily enough, apparently. Swanwick explodes every cliché associated with fantasy, but it seems that it is impossible to kill these clichés completely. At first, it even seems odd that Swanwick would write fantasy -- a realm dominated by series and sequels, and Swanwick is a writer who has never repeated himself. Is Swanwick only slumming? No, he understands the task at hand perfectly, and might be guilty, if of anything, of stylistic overkill. The Iron Dragon's Daughter is grim, intense, and quite overwhelming -- the experience of reading this book is a shock of the first order, and I was left feeling uneasy, and a bit unsure of what to think of the book. Swanwick has no signposts to reassure the reader when he is this far into unique territory -- Swanwick inverts all of the archetypes and familiar angles of fantasy, which perhaps remakes for the adult reader the first encounter with the fantastic in fiction. This kind of circularity feeds into the structure of the story here in a pleasing way.
Jane is the title character of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, and as the book opens, she is working in a steam dragon factory, a very Dickensian sort of place, Dickens to the nth. Child labour, brutal beatings, incomprehensible adults and their queasy needs and dealings, elves forming an oppressive upper class -- this sets the tone of the world that Jane lives in. One day she encounters a rusted old dragon in the yard, except that this dragon is in fact the most advanced stealth dragon camouflaging itself for its own purposes. After a few chapters, Jane and Melancthon escape, but Jane's life does not noticeably improve. The dragon has exhausted its powers, and Jane is attending the local high school, a distinctly hellish place. Once she escapes from that (achieving a scholarship through some manipulating), she attends a university in the City. But life there is also distressing and full of anguish (the students whose marks aren't good enough undergo the Teind, i.e. a kind of ritual sacrifice). Then Melancthon intrudes in Jane's life once more, and we find out the true depth of the dragon's obsession. Jane agrees to help Melancthon, with a very unexpected result. The concluding lines of the book coil the story back on itself, in a way that makes you re-evaluate the identity of a few characters Jane has met before.
Jane is clearly the centre of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. We get to know her extremely well, and our sympathies are evoked by the succession of grim events that befall her. At times, I found Jane's ordeals too unrelenting, and I wanted Swanwick to just give her a break as I would have wanted under similar circumstances. It's a measure of Jane's toughness (but not invulnerability) that she holds up her pluckiness for the majority of the novel. Swanwick does not shy away from the sexual awakenings of this character -- for example, there's a pseudo-feminist ritual that opens Chapter 16 that might be too explicit for some. I don't want to talk about the character that helps bring closure to the novel, but I think that Swanwick pulled off a difficult feat with him. Melancthon, the iron dragon of the title, is a fascinating character as well, and it's a considerable shock when he reveals his true intentions to Jane. That she agrees with him is testament to the harsh personal journey that she has undergone up to that point.
Swanwick's style matches the content precisely, so much so that the two criteria blur together, making it tricky to discuss Swanwick's technical achievements. The writing style of the book is part of what deconstructs the fantasy clichés -- for example, a schoolmate of Jane's is throwing cans of beer to the gryphons: "Gryphons, though they loved it dearly, had small tolerance for alcohol. Several of the creatures were plastered already, weaving erratically in the canyons between soaring stone high rises. One narrowly missed slamming into a walkway bridging two University buildings. Jane gasped" (207). Swanwick uses the language of fantasy delightfully, and rather deliberately for his own purposes. Jane is taking an alchemy class at the University, and the satire of the relevant jargon is hilarious and perfectly aimed. Swanwick also displays quite an ability to invent names that are appropriate and believable, on par with Frank Herbert. Unfortunately, I discovered to my alarm that there can be too much of a good thing. Swanwick's style is, to me, the perfect antidote to the hackwork that constitutes much of the writing in the genre... but he never gives a moment of relief. I have not read any other Swanwick novels, but on the evidence before me, I would say that I prefer his short stories (my favourites: the disturbing "Griffin's Egg" and the supremely weird "Mother Grasshopper"). Perhaps I read The Iron Dragon's Daughter in too short of a span of time, because it is indeed a wonderful novel, a singular work that never slackens its pace or inventiveness. I will keep this in mind for the next Swanwick novel that I read.
Last modified: September 28, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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