I’d owned this book for a while, but I’d rather burned out on Michael Swanwick by the time I bought it. Although he’s wonderful with imagery, I sometimes find his plots and characters to be lacking, and I couldn’t get into Stations of the Tide at all, even though it won the Nebula Award. However, I read a couple of excerpts of his new novel, The Dragons of Babel in Asimov’s and I enjoyed them a lot. Then I learned that it takes place in the same world as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and I had to go back and read that one before tackling the newer novel.
The central conceit of the world in the novel is it’s a fantasy world filled with all the traditional elves and dwarves and goblins and dragons, but that the fairy tale stories written about those creatures took place centuries ago, and in the present day this world has gone through its own industrial revolution, and today there are cities and weapons and schools and other trapping of our own modern culture, with magic and fantastic creatures integrated right into it.
The story’s heroine is Jane, a human girl among fantastic creatures, regarded as an oddity in a world that’s full of them. The novel opens with her working as a slave in a factory which builds iron dragons – sentient, flying tanks. Jane is on the edge of adolescence, and is starting to form thoughts of her own independence, although she’s somewhat behind her peers in this respect: Her friend Rooster is the nominal leader of the child workers at the factory, and has been trying to figure out how to escape or at least how to deal with some of their tormentors among the management for a long time. Other workers are happy merely to rise in the ranks among their own. Following one of Rooster’s plans, Jane gets singled out by the plant manager to do a favor for a high elf lady in the area, which leaves her ostracized by her peers. But she also is contacted by an old, forgotten dragon, number 7332, who has been imprisoned at the factory and also wishes to escape. Together they manage to achieve this goal.
The novel is told in several parts, although they’re not declared as such, but there are jumps between the major sections of story. Jane and the dragon settle near a town where Jane enrolls in high school, and the dragon goes quiescent. Jane isn’t a very good student, but aspires to become an alchemist. She also makes new friends of varying quality, and becomes involved in some local elvish customs. The last part of the novel sees Jane attending college and finding that pieces of her life seem to recreate themselves in her new environments with new players each time. She becomes more confident and gains more skills over time, and learns what 7332’s ultimate goals are for her, which are played out in the novel’s climax.
Swanwick’s novels always have a dreamlike quality to them, and Daughter certainly has that. There are even hints that it might all actually be a dream, but Swanwick is too crafty to come out and say that, and he leaves it up to the reader. This results in some allusions to the relationship between our world and Jane’s which I thought felt out-of-place in the novel. I’d have preferred that it have been played with the world it portrays being exactly what it appears, as I think the ambiguity adds nothing to the tale.
The story is of course a coming-of-age story, with Jane growing from an oppressed wallflower to a strong-willed and angry young woman, upset at how her being a human has left her in this second-class position (even though it confers a few advantages on her, too; for instance, some magical constructs work on magical creatures, but not on her). She’s a slightly pathetic character at the start, a little cowardly in her oppression, but with some inner strengths. These strengths come out over time as she stands up to increasingly more important and powerful people in pursuit of what she wants: A life of her own following her dreams. She has several romances with men who are all similar in some key ways, finds some friends and allies, as well as some adversaries. But she always seems to ultimately feel alone, and consequently she always has a certain kinship with 7332, despite the dragon’s frustrating and mercurial nature.
As much as I enjoyed Jane’s journey, I found its ending disappointing since it undercut a lot of her hard work in a relatively brief moment of emotion and show of force. For me the setting was the star of the book: While some commentary I’ve read about Daughter describes it as a melding of science fiction and fantasy, or an subversion of fantasy, I saw it more as applying some science fictional principles to a traditional fantasy setting: After all, there’s nothing that says that such a world couldn’t develop advanced science right alongside its impossible elements. Swanwick parcels out the interactions of these two slices of his world in small bits, and often subtly or obliquely; no wizards driving automobiles here, but characters considering the underlying principles of magic, or the haughty elves effectively forming the ruling caste of an economy driven by the creation of wealth. It’s a rich backdrop and there’s so much more that could be done with it – but Swanwick does quite a bit with it here in the service of the core story.
So yes, I was disappointed with the ending, and I wished Swanwick had chosen a course more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel. However, it was still a fun journey, and it’s whetted my appetite for reading The Dragons of Babel in its entirety.