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.