When he left his job, my old manager bequeathed to each of his subordinates a token by which to remember him. Though we’d only known each other for a few weeks, we managed to connect over various extracurricular interests, including (but certainly not limited to) video games and genre fiction. To my delight, not only was he steeped in fantasy and sci-fi, but he was practically a guru of the stuff. His gift to me was Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, along with a card declaiming it as his all-time favorite sci-fi/fantasy book. In the card, he wrote that his hope was that I’d fall in love with it the same way he had. I didn’t exactly fall in love with it, but it is definitely a read I won’t soon forget.
Michael Swanwick has a way with words that completely transports you into his world. His writing hints at the poetry of Tolkein, but mixed with about 10,000 parts grittiness which leaves the taste of rust and blood in your mouth. Passages like the following, which describes the crow-like creatures whose nests Jane — the protagonist — stumbles upon in the course of some routine torture during her awful childhood.
“The toads had scattered when she first emerged from the window. They fluttered in agitation not far off, their black-feathered wings beating hysterically. They were loathsome things, the miscegenated get of jackdaws upon their lustful batrachian dams, and like their sires they were notorious thieves.”
There’s a certain intensity to everything he writes, and as the plot gets grittier and farther out, the intensity only grows. And the core of the story is in itself rather intense. We follow Jane, a changeling human girl, through her life in the land of fey, which isn’t quite as sunlit and beautiful as other tales of fairies and pixies make it out to be. Swanwick’s fey is a land of technological development, drug abuse, magic, intolerance, violence, lust, greed, and vicious cruelty. It is populated by the full gamut of fantastical creatures, twisted to fit into bureaucracies, factories, high schools, malls, and more. At the start of the story, we are with Jane as she and a cadre of children work in a factory that produces intelligent mechanical dragons that are, in essence, fighter jets that can talk. Catastrophe after catastrophe follow her, and her friendships — such as they are — go up in flames, while the story as a whole seems to grow less and less coherent.
Then, over the last eighty-or-so pages, the thing slams into place, and you’re racing alongside the story, completely swept up in the action, as Jane and her dragon companion catapult themselves at the core of existence, in the hopes of destroying it altogether. It seems to come out of left field, but Swanwick ties together subtle breadcrumbs that substantiate the action, and just when you feel satisfied that you (kind of) understand what’s going on, the last six pages turn the whole story upside-down. When I finished the book, I put it on the table in front of me, then stared at it a while, and resisted the temptation to pick it up and start at the beginning to see what I could learn from an immediate re-read. I’ll definitely read this book again, some day.
I may not have fallen in love with it, but I can’t deny that it had an impact on me. After reading books like this, “classic” fantasy tropes begin to feel a bit bland. Expect more on that particular (lack of) flavor in a future review.