Review: Michael Swanwick – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)

9/10

Jane was taken as a young girl. A changeling. Now, going through puberty, she works in a hellish Dickensian factory alongside goblins, fays and trolls, run by corrupt elves, making black dragons of iron for the elves’ war effort. Her days are bleak and her future seems hopeless, until she comes across a discarded iron dragon at a junk yard. The dragon whispers to her secrets of high skies, freedom and dark hatred, and Jane agrees to fix him in exchange for an escape by air.

Michael Swanwick is one of those writers who, along with, say, John Crowley and M. John Harrison, pushes the boundaries of speculative fiction and quietly produces fiction a step removed from the main currents of genre, often leaving readers a bit flummoxed. And this book sure is a reaction again the entire history of fantasy.

The above description of the story sounds like a neat setup for a Young Adult adventure, cleverly using the fresh idea of a faerie cyberpunk setting (which is in itself unusual) for a tale of cutesy fantasy, personal growth and happy empowerment. But, to quote China Mieville, Swanwick “completely destroys the sentimental aspects of genre fiction”. Let’s step back into the real world for a moment. What happens often to kids with a horrible childhood? They develop psychological issues, maybe get an addiction, maybe get pregnant at the age of 16.

Nothing about this book is obvious. Nor is it escapism.

There are sudden and dramatic shifts in setting throughout the book, but even in the first chapters in the factory, hints are strewn about of things to come. A somewhat disturbing focus on Jane’s as yet unexplored sexuality and first menstruation, a fay having a fever dream about Pepsi and Lucky Strikes, the iron dragon infesting her mind with hallucinations, in effect corrupting her for its own goals. The dragon is some amalgamation of the shrewd dragons of the fantasy of yore combined with the inhuman AIs of science fiction. It feels like a natural marriage.

And don’t even think about popular tropes such as fate, or immediate redemption after a quick lesson learned in an easily grasped hero’s journey. Jane’s story is one of repeated bad decisions, some involving kleptomania, emotional manipulation, gratuitous drug use and tantric sex magic. Then again, this twisted faerie world deals her such a bad hand that she is merely trying to survive. It is like an anti-fantasy, closer to the drama-porn of mainstream literature. But anti-fantasy or not, Swanwick is still a giant of the imagination and conjures a constantly fascinating fantasy world.

Jane, not being a hero of a fairytale, is confronted with the price tags of trying to get ahead in the world. Is it worth it to lie and betray people versus slavery? It is ok to live a full life when a loved one chooses to pay the price for it? When will a lack of principles come around to bite you in the ass? It is a möbius loop of a coming-of-age story in which the same struggles appear in different settings.

Confronted with this unsanitized, visceral version of fantasy, then what have we been reading all this time before Swanwick’s book came along? What is fantasy? What is the use of fantasy imagery anyway? It can be used to capture childhood worlds, but is growing up then nothing more than replacing fantasy imagery with reality? What is the iron dragon? The dragon is an escape for Jane but not for the readers, and signifies violence, to herself and to others. Is it a self-destructive impulse, and do we all have a dragon calling for us?

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter reads at times as a precursor to China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and the New Weird genre, but an earlier version of it, closer to the origins of fairytales. Not weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but a violent tearing away from a baseline and in dialogue with what it is struggling against. Closer to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium in intention but very different in tone and substance (if I may guess at writers’ intentions). 

It is a morbidly fascinating book. It doesn’t seem to have any presence in popular culture, but it did have an impact on the genre that continues to reverberate.


I will certainly be picking up more of Mr. Swanwick’s work. I already had a good experience with Stations of the Tide, and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter convinced me all the more that he is a writer to dig into.

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16 Responses to Review: Michael Swanwick – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)

  1. Wakizashi says:

    No way! I’ve just been reading about this book and was planning to buy a copy. I like the sound of it and I saw it was pretty divisive on review sites. Your review has sealed the deal. This is going on my tbr mountain. Thanks Jeroen.

    I’ve only read a few short stories by Swanwick. The latest one I read is called “The Last Days of Old Night” and in online here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/swanwick_12_20/ I really enjoyed it 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Wakizashi! That’s great timing! I saw that there is a cool “Best of Michael Swanwick” collection out there that is supposed to be fantastic. Many of his short stories have won prizes and some say that is best work is in short stories. I haven’t read them yet, but from what I have read so far (Stations of the Tide and Iron Dragon’s Daughter), I think the Swanwick is an amazing writer. I am curious to hear your thoughts on this novel once you’ve read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Andreas says:

        Consider me a Swanwick fan. I‘ve an old review of a collection by him here: https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/the-dog-said-bow-wow-anthology-by-michael-swanwick/ (or just use the search at my blog).
        I think he’s definitely better with shorter fiction, but his longer works are great as well, e.g. his hilarious Darger and Surplus books.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It is my plan eventually to read Swanwick’s Best Of collection and I believe that many of the short stories in The Dog Said Bow-Wow are also in the Best Of, although I haven’t checked it. I know that some of Dinosaur short stories were repurposed for a full size novel named Bones of the Earth. I’ll read all of it eventually!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Andreas says:

            Those two collections are from the same time, but since 2008 appeared lots of stuff. Last collection by him is „so much said the cat“ from 2016. It has stories since 2010.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Ah thanks for explaining. Those Darger and Surplus stories, are those also collected from stuff over the years? It is like Swanwick keeps producing material at a steady pace and keeps winning awards, but is largely ignored by the fantasy readership.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Andreas says:

                There is a Subterranean collection of the Darger and Surplus stories. But there are also two novels featuring them.
                As for „largely ignored by the fantasy readership“, I think that’s a gross misrepresentation. As you said, he won several awards – some are fan based like his multiple Hugos and Asimov reader awards (yes, that’s more SF). Also, the World Fantasy Award. He really has a steady fanbase – not of a GRRM dimension, of course. He is not a young author, though, so I expect fans more on the older side of life.
                A sequel of your read – The Iron Dragon‘s Mother – was last year’s Locus finalist btw. He‘s anything but outdated.
                Did you check him out at isfdb?

                Liked by 1 person

                • Ah I’m not familiar with isfdb. It is true that he has won many awards. But I can’t help noticing that on Amazon and on Goodreads, the number of ratings and reviews for his books is very low. And Internet forums like reddit, which are populated by mostly younger readers, just about never drop his name, even though he still produces a lot. On YouTube too, maybe one or two book tubers may mention him.

                  Like

                  • Andreas says:

                    Here you are: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?179
                    reddit has tides of recommendations; he isn’t recommended very often, but has seen a few reddits there (just 2 months ago…); I know that’s not often and high-profile but also far from “about never”. Now, I don’t want to defend reddit or the likes and praise Swanwick too far. But sometimes I wonder if millenials really go for reddit or youtube to seek new books (I know my daughter does, but she has also other sources).

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Well, I’m glad that Swanwick still wins awards or nominations. That always helps, and maybe I should post a thing or two on reddit about him, after I have read more of his work. (It’s also why I like reviewing books! I can’t pretend to go for really unknown books all the time, but now and then a book comes by that deserves some more attention and then it is my honor to put it in the spotlight.)

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Andreas says:

                      Keep up the good work 🙂

                      Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Cool, you sold me. Never read him.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Review: The Dragons of Babel (2008) by Michael Swanwick | A Sky of Books and Movies

  4. Pingback: Michael Swanwick – The Iron Dragon’s Mother (2019) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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