The Dragons of Babel

by Michael Swanwick

Rating: ★★★★

The Dragons of Babel is a second foray into the richly weird industrial fairyworld of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. A sequel to that book would be impossible, but this alternative exploration of the same setting manages to provide a second experience which is only slightly less bizarrely fatalistic, and still manages to keep you guessing.

In many ways, The Dragons of Babel is the male mirror of a female Iron Dragon's Daughter, and the reflections cast by that parallel are interesting to observe. In both cases, a dragon is involved in raising the child up from obscurity, and in both cases it turns out that their inherent properties are key to their power. In Will's case the story is laden with typically male themes: he internalises the power of the dragon, and becomes formidable in combat. He protects the weak; he falls in love with a dazzling beauty and charms her through persistence and uncanny skill. He raises himself from the lowest level by his own merit, but is also the true-born son of a powerful king. Whereas Jane develops her sexuality as a weapon, a tool to power, Will develops himself through cunning and strength, a modern Odysseus character. In the end, Will replaces his father.

The book is almost as dazzling as the previous work for the rich blend of high fantasy and modern industrial settings. We see soldiers of mass destruction, refugee camps, centaur squads and time-travelling border patrols. In the sewers, we are treated to a most fantastic and illustrious portrait of an underground resistance movement. In the city there are always the threats to the identify of class and race, and repercussions to any challenge of the existing order.

Magical and brutal, Swanwick's second presentation offers more of the same nihilistic enchantment, and very well done.