The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick
“The changeling’s decision to steal a dragon and escape was born, though she did not know it then, the night the children met to plot the death of their supervisor.”
I can remember vividly the feelings of wonder and amazement I had on reading The Iron Dragon’s Daughter for the first time. Here was a book packed with inventiveness, over-stuffed with bold ideas, unafraid to play with and subvert any Fantasy tropes it came across, right down to the idea that Fantasy fiction is escapism. Traditional Fantasy staples such as fairies, elves and magic are mixed seamlessly into a world of shopping malls, drugs and frank depictions of sex. Dwarves and fay have to deal with life under the strict social hierarchy imposed by the high elves. Magical creatures face the existential horror of a harsh and meaningless universe. Nowhere is the book’s bold mixture of genres and ideas better demonstrated than in the Iron Dragon of the title, a hybrid of the proud, manipulative dragons of Fantasy and the cold malevolent AI of science fiction. Revisited now it’s just as unclassifiable, a radical reconfiguring of what Fantasy is capable of, and an incredible display of depth of imagination and worldbuilding.
The book follows the life of its protagonist, Jane Alderberry, a human changeling who has been kidnapped and brought to the higher world of faerie, where she is put to work in the factory that makes the Iron Dragons, children being small enough to crawl through and clean the beasts’ metal innards. She makes a pact with one of the Iron Dragons, Melanchthon, and together they escape. Jane then finds herself out in the wider world, where she must go to school with fairies, elves, trolls, study alchemy at university, and then work her way into elf high society. As Jane navigates the trials of adolescent and young adult life, from difficult relationships to jealousy with friends, she also has to concern herself with avoiding the authorities who want to send her back to the factory, understand the upsetting visions she has of another life in the world of humans, and figure out what she truly pledged to Melanchthon in their pact.
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is filled with inventive ideas and beautifully conceived set-pieces, from the Dickensian dragon factory guarder by a time clock that rapidly ages and kills those who don’t clock in or out of work, to the magical elf shopping malls where time is frozen for the shoppers, to the gargoyle-infested towers of the university. Swanwick manages to unify all these disparate settings and the range of different tones he uses for each part by focusing on the mundane, the grimy, the lived-in. This makes what could have felt like a hopelessly sprawling book feel vividly realistic, as Swanwick explores the squalid and dangerous working conditions of the children in the factory, the petty rivalries of school and the realities Jane faces growing up in poverty – as she’s a fugitive she has to live in the Iron Dragon’s cockpit and steal much of what she needs, and Jane growing into her sexuality whilst struggling to pay tuition fees at university.
The book is shot through with a dark streak of existential despair, unusually for a Fantasy novel. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is smartly cynical, and uses Fantasy tropes to force Jane and the reader to confront their assumptions. Whilst destiny is a force that plays a large role in many Fantasy books, when Jane, having learned about astrology in class, asks her tutor what role the planets and stars play in shaping destiny, he tells her in no uncertain terms that they don’t, and that both destiny and free will are illusions. It is a powerful moment, and a crucial part of Jane’s education, as she is brought to question what she is being taught by her teachers. Similarly, although the book features sex magic, Swanwick has a witch disavow Jane of the notion of the mysticism of feminine sexuality through her coarseness and vulgarity as she dispenses sensible, practical advice. These themes are raised to fever pitch in the scenes in which Melanchthon reveals his plan to Jane to kill the Goddess, the deity worshipped by the people in the book, as the dragon tells Jane that the harsh realities of her life can only be explained by an at best indifferent, at worst malevolent deity, and later when he tells her that the Goddess doesn’t exist, and his plan is to destroy the entire universe. However, before the book gets too cynical, Swanwick is able to invoke a different Fantasy trope – that dragons frequently lie to manipulate others – and reveals a truth more complicated and nuanced than Melanchthon’s petty and bitter rage is capable of acknowledging, in which the Goddess, destiny and human agency can all play a part.
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter plays interesting games with genre and mythology. Although very much a work of Fantasy, the book integrates elements of SF into its premise, both with the technology behind the Iron Dragons, and in the Goddess’ Spiral Castle, both a fortress of the gods and a hyper-dimensional sphere containing all reality. The relationship between the world of faerie, where almost all of the book takes place, and our own reality, where Jane comes from and her mother lives, is presented in both Fantastical and SF-nal terms as well, with both worlds operating almost as separate dimensions accessed by the Iron Dragons, but with one or both being a metaphor for the other. The book’s theology is also interesting, with a Lamia – a mythical creature half woman, half snake – revealing an inverted story of the Fall, in which she is tempted by the Goddess to create a world in which there is knowledge of good and evil, and is cursed to have ancestors with feet and legs. There are also elements of social satire. The world of faerie is a rigid social hierarchy, with the high elves owning all the power and money, and the other magical beings in a distinctly lower social class. Order is maintained by the Teind, an event that happens every ten years in which there is mass lawlessness, burning and killing, and by yearly blood sacrifices of the may queen.
Another way in which the book plays with the idea of destiny and inevitability is with its other two main characters, Tetigistus and Kunosoura. These are the true names of Jane’s two friends, the former male and frequently her lover, the latter female and frequently her rival, who appear in various different guises throughout the book – as Rooster and Dimity in the factory, as Peter and Gwen in the school, as Puck and Sirin at the university, and as Rocket and Lesya in high elf society. Jane is fated to keep bumping into them, and each time, no matter what approach she takes, it ends in tragedy with their deaths. Through these characters Swanwick explores the idea of unavoidable destiny and doom. Tetigistus, Kunosoura and Jane are bound together, so they cannot avoid being drawn into each other’s lives time and time again. And throughout the book, they are frequently the cause of each other’s pain and misery, despite the love they share for each other. Following the deaths of Peter, Gwen and Rooster, Jane decides to stay away and not get involved with Puck and Sirin to try and prevent further tragedy. However this decision proves to be just as disastrous. Swanwick explores with great honesty the ways in which people misuse and hurt each other, but ultimately driving people away to prevent hurting them or yourselves isn’t the answer.
More than twenty years after its original publication, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter still stands as an astonishingly original piece of fiction. In its evocation of a punkish modern urban environment with Fantastical trappings it anticipates much urban Fantasy, and its innovative mixing of elements from disparate genres puts it in line with writers of the New Weird such as China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer. However, for the most part it stands by itself, a powerful and haunting Fantasy like no other, and an example of what the genre can achieve at its most inventive.