Michael Swanwick’s 1993 The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was one of the most blatant efforts at confirming yet subverting fantasy the genre has seen. Throwing all of epic fantasy’s knick knacks and souvenirs (and several from science fiction, as well) into a pot and stirring them rough and tumble, the resulting story had a polarizing effect on readers (the Amazon summary of customers’ star ratings is the opposite of a bell curve). The setting more than fertile, Swanwick returned to the convoluted city in 2008, fifteen years later, with The Dragons of Babel.
With Jane’s story concluded in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a new ‘hero’ was needed for Dragons. Enter Will le Fey, a young man from a small village who has his life swept out from under his feet by the world at large. Though seeming a standard fantasy premise, everything which follows is far off the beaten path. Extremely similar in style, Dragons expands the scope of Daughter, yet remains the second pea in the pod: a simultaneous confirmation and subversion of epic fantasy.
War is on at the outset of The Dragons of Babel, and a phalanx of iron dragons duke it out in the skies above Will’s countryside village one day. One of the dragons, Baalthazar, is severely damaged in the firefight, and comes crawling wingless to the village square in the aftermath. Proclaiming himself king, he deputizes Will as his lieutenant, and together the two bring about dramatic changes to the village. Disguising itself in dilapidated style in order to remain off the map of the armies marching on the outskirts, things eventually draw to a head for Will when he is required to kill one of his best friends to preserve the radar silence. Later cast out of the village to wander the war torn land, Will finds himself in a refuge camp, an interested ear on a long train journey, a wild youth on the streets, and eventually chasing a woman—who may be no good for him, anyway—through the upper social circles of Babel. But it’s rescuing a young girl named Esme may prove his downfall. It might also prove his salvation, life in Babel moving in unpredictable twists and turns.
Bottom line: if you enjoyed The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, you will enjoy The Dragons of Babel. Capturing the same dynamic mood, transitioning the main characters through surreal iterations of personal development, and utilizing the same savory and occasionally obtuse language, the two novels form a complementary pair. Where The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was the story of a young woman who forever seems to make poor decisions while fighting through the exigencies of life, The Dragons of Babel is the story of a young man who is given a good head at birth, but must deal with temptations and choose between the doors opening in society to find his place. Likewise opposed yet balanced are the denouements. I will not give away the novel’s ending, but suffice to say it heads in a different direction than that of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, giving the reader to know the first novel was only one possibility.
Jane’s story was not Cinderella, and likewise, neither is Will’s story The Once and Future King. Yet each utilize the tropes of fantasy (from seemingly every corner of the world’s mythology) to tell personal tales. Whether magic realism or just plain fantasy is debatable. But what is not is the human core. Ogres, vixens, cardsharps, hippogriffs, and elvish princesses flash across the page, but beneath is a young man trying to protect his soul while finding the basics in life we all seek: stable relationships, steady income, and a place to call home that is far from the madding crowd.
In the end, I have not much else to say except to repeat that The Dragons of Babel is a wonderful companion to The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. Despite the fifteen years that passed between their publishing, Swanwick was able to recapture the magic of the first novel and inject it into a story that is extremely similar in style yet wonderfully fresh in imagery and direction. The scenes, characters, and motives shifting in different phases underfoot, the magic realist/fantasy/fairy tale continues to subvert yet confirm the value of fantasy.