Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review of The Iron Dragon's Mother by Michael Swanwick

Like many I suppose, I was blown away by Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, and years later by its (seeming) bookend The Dragons of Babel. Intelligent, imaginative, dynamic, human—the books tell coming-of-age tales of a young woman and man (respectively) in the most enticing, unique milieus of something that is generally fantasy/science fiction but so unidentifiably genre as to be almost magic realist or slipstream, something beyond taxonomy. If indeed bookends, this leads to a very valid question: what does Michael Swanwick think he can accomplish with 2019’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother?

Daughter to an aristocrat, Caitlin, pilot to one of her lands special sentient, robotic dragons lives according to the female pilot code which forbids, well, practically everything a free person considers the good life. Familial tragedy leading her in a new direction in life, however, Cat finds herself on the run, trying to clear her name, and—suddenly, in one moment—with the consciousness of a nursing home patient calling herself Helen floating in her mind. Caitlin's redemption taking her to all manner of places—corporate to faery, it's a story that can only be Swanwick's. (Playing to his strengths, there is something about the Babel setting which brings out the best in Swanwick...)

Firstly, if the first two novels in the Babel world are taken as something personal, then The Iron Dragon's Mother must be taken as something a bit more political. For certain it does not lack the personal, rather the story feels to have an undercurrent intended to have impact beyond the main characters' lives. Swanwick retaining the glorious style of said first two novels, Caitlin's tale has tones of feminism, particularly the seizure of agency and deployment of confidence to make one's own way through life. The sentience stuck in her head does not form a counter-point, rather a kind of driving force from a greater age that nicely complements Cat's adventures. Another way of putting this is: if The Iron Dragon's Daughter is about a young woman running away from the demons of self, Mother is about a young woman running away and ultimately confronting the demons of her culture.

I was very wary that Swanwick would tarnish the luster that is the first two Babel novels. But I needn't have been. Despite going the more political route and revisiting a familiar setting, readers are in safe hands. Like Atwood's return to the setting of
The Handmaid's Tale, The Iron Dragon's Mother proves there is still a lot of room left for poignant, decisive storytelling without the SJW fluff that comes with some victim-crowning feminist narratives these days. Mother is superb storytelling exactly in the style of Daughter and Dragons but with fresh, new coats of paint—perhaps something Frido Kahlo or Remedios Varos inspired. What I’d thought of as bookends for so long has become, of all things, a trilogy, which is, in fact, a great thing. This will be on my short list for book of the year...

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