While growing up, I knew a girl who had a hard life. Born into a broken home, she would talk back to the teacher in class for no other reason than simple rebelliousness, she could be seen smoking outside of school at a very early age, and was pregnant by the time she reached sixteen—an unfortunately classic story. I do not know the details of her home life, but certainly it must have been far from ideal. This is not to say the girl bore no responsibility for her actions, only that the situation she was born into didn’t make life any easier. Though outwardly appearing something totally different, Michael Swanwick’s 1993 The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is the story of one such girl. Fantasy that subverts common conceptions of the genre yet confirms its potential as meaningful literature, Jane’s story is largely surreal yet retains a visceral edge that propels the story beyond mere genre.
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is the coming of age of Jane. The girl’s developmental years the furthest from idyllic, her story begins in a factory that produces mechanical dragons. Going through puberty in the opening chapters, times are tough for Jane. She performs manual labor for long hours, has a demanding foreman, is called upon to perform extra-curricular activities for the aging owner, and must deal with the jealousies, petty feuds, loves, and hates of the creatures she calls co-workers. But things change one day when walking through an out-of-the-way corner of the factory grounds. Following a voice in her head, she comes to a rusting heap of a dragon calling itself Melanchthon. Stepping into the metal beast’s cockpit, she makes a deal with the machine: help free him, and in return earn her own freedom from the stark exigencies of life in the factory. All hell breaking loose in the escape attempt, Jane sees life morph before her eyes as she enters the real world. A place where her inner desires are satisfied, all hell eventually catches up to her.
Justin Landon is currently performing a re-read of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy at Tor.com. One of his primary goals is to highlight the series’ subversive qualities, and in the process, to confirm it as more than average epic fantasy. The problem is, Abercrombie’s story, from character to setting, plot devices to motifs, remains 90% borrowed and 10% ‘subversive’—and those elements which are ‘subversive’ remain cheap literary tricks. In other words, Landon has a tall task ahead of him. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, however, is truly dissident. In dialogue (interrogatory, in fact) with the genre, Swanwick uses tropes every reader of fantasy is familiar with, yet integrates them with story to create layers of sub-text that force the reader to think upon the history of the genre, the representation of the tropes, and most importantly, how a truly human story can still be related with elements so disparate from what we consider reality. In contrast, Abercrombie is limited to surface misdirection and bits of sensationalism, the story having little to no bearing on reality. The sum of Swanwick’s novel is therefore greater than the parts, the tropes of fantasy used with integrity.
So while The Iron Dragon’s Daughter’s title is intentionally epic, its story a coming-of-age, the imagery fantastically intense, and its characters all manner of dragons, gnomes, elves, trolls, dwarves, zombies, etc., at no time does one feel as though they are stuck in the latest R.R. wannabe (J. and George). Instead, Swanwick sets the story in a bleak Dickensian city; the main character does not begin the story in a bucolic village or wilds of adventure, rather the dirt and grime of a factory; the language is wholly modern and explicit, as opposed to any pseudo-Olde English or typically epic mode of writing; the idea of women in fantasy as warrior-ess sex objects is challenged; there are no prophecies writ large; the choices are colors of humanity, rather than the black and white morality that stereotypes the genre; there is graphic drug use and sexuality; and the protagonist is a chronic shoplifter who sleeps with people for ulterior motive and is uncaring as to her effect on others, occasionally destroying those around her with indifference. If this is not enough to rock the fantasy boat, then I don’t know what is.
At this point the reader understands the most significant difference between Swanwick’s fantasy and other books in the genre: the fantastic elements fulfill their symbolic potential, that is, rather than being just eye-candy. From the fantastical opening to the realism of the closing, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a human story—a self-abusive, self-delusional, dregs-of-society human story, but a human story nevertheless. Jane’s story may be grimdark, but it is not sensationalist. Like the girl I knew in school, Jane appears functional enough, but forever makes decisions that hurt rather than help, no matter how many times they slam their hand in the same door. I hate to pick on Abercrombie, but there is one scene in First Law wherein a supremely arrogant character is beaten near death, and immediately thereafter behaves with altruism—their personality turning on a violent dime. More subtle, Swanwick postulates that such a change of heart can only occur after multiple beatings, or in Jane’s case, numerous trips to the gutter in escalating iterations of self-abuse. It is through this process her character slowly evolves into someone better suited to function in normal society. Many shortcomings still exist in her character at the end, but at least there is an understanding and desire to comply with the realities of quotidian life.
It is on these evolving iterations that Swanwick paints the intense imagery of the novel. Describing the dragon factory in the early going, the following is a good sample of his style:
The worst assignments were in the foundries, which were hellish in summer even before the molds were poured and waves of heat slammed from the cupolas like a fist, and miserable in winter, when snow blew through the broken windows and a gray slush covered the work floor. The knockers and hogmen who labored there were swart, hairy creatures who never spoke, blackened and muscular things with evil red eyes and intelligences charred down to their irreducible cinders by decades-long exposure to magickal fires and cold iron. Jane feared them even more than she feared the molten metals they poured and the brute machines they operated.
Swanwick outlays the aesthetic side of the novel through such wording, but provides the artistry at depth. There are doppelgangers, allusion, absurdism, surrealism, magic realism—rendering the novel complex mosaic that rewards upon re-read, particularly digging at the layers of symbolism.
In the end, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is an allusive amalgam of genre tropes that aims at, and strikes the heart of something human (something dark, but something inherently human), culminating in a book that is as much anti-fantasy as it is pure fantasy. There are surface elements of sword & sorcery, science fiction, cyberpunk, voodoo magic, horror, and just about every fantasy creature one can imagine: elves, trolls, feys, shifters, cyborg hounds, mechanical dragons, imps, thumblings, grigs, rusalka, ogre, hag, meryon, froudlings, etc. But no matter what you slather on top, or how much decoration is wadded on, the structure holding the story in place is of a young woman finding her way—a rough and tumble way brought about by poor decisions—into the realities of adulthood. Contrasting much fantasy of the 80s and 90s (e.g. Jordan, Goodkind, Eddings, Brooks, etc.), the novel bears more in common with Lucius Shepard’s The Dragon Griaule, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, and to some extent Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. And it has had its influence on the genre as well, including Mieville’s Bas-Lag works (I could write a paragraph or two on the similarities between The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and Perdido Street Station) and the milieu of Charlie Stross’ Laundry Files (though Stross isn’t trying to subvert anything).