Review: The Dragons of Babel (2008) by Michael Swanwick


Earlier this year I read Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993) and I was immensely impressed. The weird faerie-cyber-elf-punk-Dickens world with telepathic robot dragons blew my mind. This world combined the strangest opposites: fairy tale and cyberpunk, Harry Potter-like fantasy cuteness and the sudden violence and cruelty of old Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The explosion of inventive fantasy on every page was very satisfying, but what impressed me most of all was Swanwick’s powerful prose that made it a joy to read.

The Dragons of Babel (2008) is a loose companion novel, written 15 years later, and can be read as a standalone. A new main character, the young Will, has his life turned upside down when an iron dragon crashes in their little fairy village. The dragon is still alive but can’t move, and chooses Will to be his lieutenant. He has little choice. Swanwick solidly inverts the farm-boy-turned-hero trope. The malign influence of the dragon’s dark thoughts spreads into Will and the village. Will becomes nasty and shunned by all. I think Swanwick takes a page from an old classic: Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). The Dragons of Babel recreates the same kind of droll fairy-tale village, and very much like that novel it “shifts unpredictably from drollery to menace to a high poignancy that sticks in the mind” as other reviewers have said. It’s the kind of tale where you look up every chapter and think: “what crazy thing did I just read? That was a lot darker than I expected.”

Will’s story continues, follows a strange Bildungsroman journey full of uncomfortable choices, in a world of elves, centaurs and other creatures classic and new, against a backdrop of war and refugees. There is a darkness in Will, but it isn’t all his fault. It’s just a perverse world that he is born into. The same with Jane in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter: if you grow up as an orphan in a Dickensian factory, chances are that you’ll be doing drugs later on as a difficult teenager. Will gets a companion: a young girl named Esme, who is really about two centuries old but sold her future and memory for perpetual childhood and continuous good luck, which is leeched from the luck of those around her. She will be fine, and she will be bad for you, but it is hard dumping a little girl by the side of the road.

We need to talk about the structure of these novels. Will’s story is like a series of short stories and we jump from one storyline to another. Only at the end do they come together as a satisfying whole. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter too was a series of four novellas squeezed together. Swanwick is really a short story writer, but this approach to writing is a bit messy. Not every part is equally interesting and the story feels unfocused. Characters sometimes disappear for long stretches of time. 

The first chapters made for a compelling start and I was entranced from the first page, but… Swanwick’s main point, or what I think is his main point, is also what makes the story bewildering to read, and it is this: magic is awful. It fucks up people’s lives. Will tries to find his way in the world but this magic-infused reality jerks his life this way and that, and that is how the story comes across to the reader as well. This is an anti-fantasy where the farm boy can’t get ahead and magic is horrible. There is even a point where you think that it turns into a regular old fantasy with a big struggle and hero’s journey and all that, before the novel flips its table and starts something totally new again. Swanwick is signalling that this book is not that kind of story.

And you know what, when I thought momentarily that the story would turn into a regular old hero’s journey and big fight, I felt disappointment. So, luckily that didn’t happen. The subversions throughout this book feel jarring, but are ultimately more interesting. In the end, this was a very satisfying, stimulating read, although it pays if you find it in yourself to wallow a bit in the shock and perversity on display here. You don’t expect it in a book about elves and dwarves, but that’s kind of the point.

What I appreciate most about these Swanwick novels is that they exist at all. I want there to be space for novels like these. Much of fantasy is about long-running series of predictable epic fantasy or young adult fantasy, but these quirky standalones also stand apart. They reach for influences in disparate corners of speculative fiction and embody highly creative hybrids for adult readers who are very well read into the genre and know all the tropes. Swanwick operates from a very different starting position, a different headspace, that has nothing in common with your typical trilogy-writing epic fantasy novelist. And what he adds to the genre feels unique. The books are both a reaction against trends and an incorporation of some timeless fantasy elements in new settings. 

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15 Responses to Review: The Dragons of Babel (2008) by Michael Swanwick

  1. savageddt says:

    This sounds like a great read man. I´ve been looking for a dragon book that I can not remember the author or the title of. This cover reminded me of that, but I can not remember it having steam punk in it.


  2. Andreas says:

    That’s a great followup of our discussion of earlier this year! Since then, I’ve read something from him as well: his 1985 cyberpunk novelette “Dogfight” (together with William Gibson) – review’s here:
    He’s pushing out story after story: has published a longer story from him in May “Annie Without Crow” (which I haven’t read), and Asimov two stories this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah Swanwick is still going strong? That is great to hear! I consider myself a fan after the books I’ve read by him. After this, I would like to read the third book in this series: The Iron Dragon’s Mother (2018) and some of his work from the 1980s. His short stories too.

      I also know that he repurposed his short stories to make his novels. Two stories from The Dog Said Bow Wow were used for writing The Dragons of Babel. So then I wonder about this novelette “Dogfight”… was it perhaps used by Swanwick to write his cyberpunk novel Vacuum Flowers?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. bormgans says:

    Sounds like something I should check out. But better to pick the 1993 title as a first Swanwick?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Four SF/Fantasy works that feature the Tower of Babel | A Sky of Books and Movies

  5. Ola G says:

    That’s… very interesting, tbh. I might take a closer look! Thanks for the rec – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is the first one?

    Liked by 1 person

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

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