The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

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The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: An outstanding, original fantasy, with a terrifyingly convincing picture of Faerie world mixing alchemy, high technology and esoteric magic. All of this mixed with trials and tribulations typical of a bildungsroman, bitter love, sex and youth culture. Fantasy punk, if there is such a thing. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: October 2004
Publisher: Gollancz
ISBN: 978-0575076051

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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.

Another, though very different book with not-so-nice elves is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke.

Booklists.jpg The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick is in the Bookbag's Fantasy Picks.

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