Thursday, March 06, 2008

Review: The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick has made a career of turning genre on its head, winning a bunch of awards in the process. He wrote cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk at the beginning, and with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter he essentially laid out the blueprint for the New Weird years before the term existed. The Dragons of Babel follows in the same world, though it should not be viewed as a sequel, but a story all its own. After reading it, my first work of Swanwick’s, I consider it almost criminal that a genre writer of his caliber is so rarely discussed on the various blogs and message boards I spend time at.

The story begins with a standard coming-of age story of orphaned Will le Fey in a village far removed. The setting is Faerie – not the Faerie you’ve seen time and again – but a war-torn, post-industrial Faerie indirectly overlapping with our world. Dragons are iron-wrought behemoths full of technology and running off of jet fuel. Hippogriffs and griffons park side-by-side with motorcycles, BMWs and limousines with all matter of mythological races living amongst one another. If you think New York or London is a melting pot, wait until you see Babel.

A war dragon crashes into Will’s remote village, immediately installs himself as King, and chooses Will as his agent. Isolated from the village as a result, and in spite of his eventual rebellion against the dragon, Will is exiled from the village. His service to the dragon leaves him scarred with a dark power inside of him, not entirely in his control.

Will becomes a refuge fleeing the war zone, landing for a time in a refuge camp; and eventually in the great city of Babel. Along the way, Will picks up a surrogate daughter, becomes an apprentice of sorts to a trickster, a leader in an underground rebellion, and meets the love of his life. Beyond that, let’s just say that Swanwick has an interesting, even subversive take on the orphan of destiny trope.

It becomes instantly clear that Swanwick knows how to write well. His economic prose sets the mood and brings the world vividly to life with as few words as I’ve seen it done. While another author would have turned this story into a trilogy, in Swanwick’s skilled hands The Dragons of Babel weighs in at a mere 320 pages – a very welcome length to this over-busy blogger. Even with the relatively abbreviated page count, the pacing feels just right. Only the build-up at the end feels rushed, and even then, not very rushed.

Surficially, Swanwick pulls together a fresh-feeling, fun, satiric, and at times, heavy plot while focusing characterization on Will. The supporting caste should be viewed as literary vessels designed as true support for Will and the city itself, Babel. The character of Babel remains in the background, but of equal importance to that of Will, as it represents the whole of a society that Will is but a key part of.

Thematically, The Dragons of Babel almost has a schizophrenic feel about it – in the beginning it seems as if each chapter focuses on different elements. It’s not just about Will’s coming-of-age and the building of an eventual leader. It’s about everything in a modern society and its internal and external conflicts. Sides aren’t truly taken, with things laid out for the reader to absorb – just as they are for Will.

The Dragons of Babel is the first book by Michael Swanwick that I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. Call it fantasy, urban fantasy, new weird, or something else entirely; The Dragons of Babel is a powerfully entertaining (and entertainingly powerful) book for all – a book that should be talked about. 8.5/10

Related Posts: Michael Swanwick Answers Questions Five


Carl V. Anderson said...

I just started reading it yesterday and am enjoying it thus far!

Unknown said...

I'm also a fairly recent Swanwick convert. I read 'The Iron Dragon's Daughter' last fall. Excellent book. It is a wonderful mash up of tried and true fantasy tropes, the everyday world, and dystopian SF that it made my head spin! Since then I've read Faust, which was also excellent, and the short story collections 'The Dog Said Bow Wow' and 'A Geography of unknown Lands.' I'd recommend them all without reservation. The only thing I've read so far by him that wasn't excellent is 'Stations of the Tide,'which feels a little bit dated.

I hope you'll consider reviewing "The Dog Said Bow Wow" at some point, as I'd like to see your thoughts on that.

ThRiNiDiR said...

you really got me interested in swanwick. i know that his "iron dragon's daughter" was issued in fantasy masterwork collection and had my eye thrown along i definitely have to buy one of these 2 books, or both :)

Neth said...

-Carl, I think you're in for a real treat.

-waterfowl, I hear good things about Swanwick's short fiction, so I do hope to try some out. Right now I have a copy of The Iron Dragon's Daughter but that's all. Bones of the Earth is also appealing since I'm a geologist by day. I will check out The Dog Said Bow Wow - that way my son and I will read books with similar titles ;)

-thrinidir, I hope you enjoy them.

Ed S. said...

Sigh. I've been thinking about this book for a while and I was really hoping that you would say that the book stinks so that I wouldn't have to buy it. Now I'm stuck with one more title added to this months budget deficit. Maybe the cat will share some of his food with me so that I can squeeze by.

Neth said...

-ed, just have the cat pull its weight some more - you make stew out all sorts of things.


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