The first sentence of this review must be: you shouldn’t read Lord Weary’s Empire independent of The Dragons of Babel, the novel which it is excerpted from. A flighty, implausible, incoherent milieu otherwise, context, in this case, means everything. In other words, you’re better off looking into the novel. And if you haven’t read the novel, then it’s best to start with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. All of that being said, I will still move forward with a review of four chapters taken from the middle of The Dragons of Babel known collectively as Lord Weary’s Empire.
The novella opens in classic form: a young man must fight to the death to prove himself to a shadowy underground group: Lord Weary and his Army of Night. The young man, whose name is Will le Fey, survives the ritual, and goes on to become Weary’s lieutenant in the bowels of the city. Ruling the subway and sewer lines, the Army of Night lays traps for other gangs and participates in guerrilla war with the city’s militia. Weary a strong but paranoid leader, Will’s competence eventually bites back, and when it does, Will needs to be prepared for the most base of tactics in the underground world if he is to survive.
For those who want to read Lord Weary’s Empire without the context of The Dragons of Babel, it will be quite easy to critique several aspects: the prose is rich purple (often faux-epic), the plot reaches a point where it advances implausibly, and there are too many fantasy tropes heaped onto the story. Knowing that the novella is a dream, however, changes all of this. Will wakes up at the end of the story on the same subway tracks in which he fights to the death at the beginning. As the story’s aims are beyond epic urban fantasy, this is far from a spoiler, and is in fact crucial if one intends to read the novella independent of the novel.
Intelligently playing with the genre, Lord Weary’s Empire is an intentionally exaggerated usage of the tropes of fantasy to prove that self-delusion is a form of fantasy. Swanwick, it seems, is not defending mainstream epic fantasy as worthwhile literature, rather that it’s distance from reality makes it truly escapism. When the novella is read independently, this interpretation is not so obvious. Therefore, as mentioned at the outset, it is advised to be read in the context of the novel as a whole for comparative purposes.
In the end, I do not know why Lord Weary’s Empire was excerpted from The Dragons of Babel. When removed from context, the pompous prose and embellished plotting lose impact, and potentially mislead readers that Swanwick is a writer of such talent and aim (at least for those unfamiliar with his style). But what’s done is done, and those armed with determination to read the novella independent of the novel should at least enter the cinema knowing it’s a story within a dream—a pointed story, but one whose larger purpose requires contextualization. Just go read the novel; you will be rewarded.