Swanwick produced us another sparkling, prickly novel. Finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, but nobody read it. Professional acclaim from peer authors isn’t the problem for Swanwick and he has an impressive list of awards to his name, but everyone’s reading Brandon Sanderson. A shame, because Swanwick is so, so good. He’s a fantastic writer. The Iron Dragon’s Mother is the third entry in an “accidental” series of books all set in the same universe, preceded by The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993) and The Dragons of Babel (2008) but all can in theory be read in any order. So, this is your chance! (But reading them in order of release does bring real benefits.)
Quick introduction to the story: in a prologue of sorts we meet Helen, 90+ years old and spending her last days in a hospital ward, exchanging caustic remarks with her nurses, but on the moment of death, her soul is snatched away. Helen’s soul blends with that of the young woman Caitlin in the faerie dimension. Caitlin is a pilot of iron dragons and she’s half human, hence has a tolerance for iron. She’s framed in some conspiracy involving the murder of her Elf brother and now has to run and disappear into the world of Industrialised Faerie. Maybe the ghost of Helen has advice for her.
As I said for the previous two novels: this weird faerie-cyber-elf-punk-Dickens world with telepathic robot dragons blows my mind. This world combines 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 is very satisfying, but what impresses me most of all is Swanwick’s powerful prose that makes every paragraph a joy to read. He has quickly become one of my favourite writers.
These books are incredibly hard to review because it is not easy to convey their world and the experience of reading them. People in these books drink Pepsi, have Hello Kitty backpacks and drive Kawasaki motors, but it is also a world where Caitlin has to deal with gnomes living in the walls that try to jerk themselves off when she’s changing her clothes (don’t worry, the elf lord called in the exterminator to gas them. Just to mention one of dozens of disturbing throwaway ideas), dragon souls that sound genuinely menacing, a cat-lady as her lawyer, brutal Elf aristocracy, all sorts of magic and glamours, and much more. Every scene and chapter is full of invention and the story is full of unexpected cruelty and sexuality. And it is all communicated through a strength of prose that rivals M. John Harrison, with snappy dialogue, perfectly built-up scenes and biting emotional moments.
Swanwick is not in the business of explaining how the magic works in his world; he doesn’t do magic systems. With the consequence that whenever something magical happens – which is once every few pages – it comes as a shock. Holy crap! is the reaction. How shocking, how weird, how awful. The benefits for storytelling are obvious. Another reason why I am reminded of Harrison is because Swanwick is interested in breaking out of the established boxes of what fantasy is. He’s writing against the genre as it is, with full knowledge of it. Rebels like him aren’t always popular.
What Swanwick is in the business of is making his industrialised faery world feel like a lived-in place. It has ghettos and dodgy bus stops with harsh TL light. People use expressions like “not my dwarf, not my fight”. Caitlin mentions how she’s carrying someone over the shoulder “kobold-style”, whatever that may be. The frame of reference is different for everything. There’s endless invention like this, including a corporation for conspiracies, which reminds me of one of Jack Vance’s Demon Princes novels that had an official exchange bureau for kidnappings. You never know what you’re going to get with each new chapter.
I haven’t talked much about the story yet because for most of the time it isn’t all that clear. Caitlin is on the run and in every new town she enters some new situation that gives her new clues about the conspiracy. But since we understand so little about this strange world, we can’t formulate our own theories. We just have to wait patiently until Swanwick explains it to us. And while Caitlin’s motivations are clear, this world is so chaotic that she’s sidetracked all the time by people who have their own plans or want to take advantage of her. This makes the overarching story rather vague. In the previous books too, a weak point was novel-spanning plots. Swanwick seems to thrive in short story or novella format, and longer works often feel like novellas stitched together. That means that the cast of characters is small, usually just follows Caitlin’s point of view, and new characters are dropped frequently.
Caitlin never became interesting to me as a character. Near the end of the novel, we still hardly know anything about her, nor about Helen who resides in her head. In the previous two novels, the characters Jane and Will also didn’t receive deep character explorations but at least we saw them grow up, go through troubled young lives and make bad decisions. Caitlin’s journey of self-exploration is much smaller, and the partnership with Helen in her head doesn’t really amount to much in the story, which I think is a wasted opportunity.
However, at the end it all miraculously clicks together. The same thing happened in The Dragons of Babel: at times it seems as if Swanwick completely lost the plot, and then larger plots and hidden goals become apparent. Just so in The Iron Dragon’s Mother. In this series, there are always hidden forces dictating people’s lives. No matter how much control the protagonists want to have over their lives, there are always deeper layers of power that use people as tools for unseen magical goals. Secret prophesies and ancient magical contracts that go all the way back to the creation of the universe still exert power over the lives of small citizens. Unless you are some trickster god, everyone is powerless and trapped, and it is perhaps the greatest horror of all that can be found in this perverse version of fairyland.
If all this appeals to you, I’d recommend starting with the 1993 The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and if you can’t find that one, The Dragons of Babel, because there are actually some important callbacks and characters that show up from previous books, especially from The Dragons of Babel.