book-reviews

The Iron Dragon's Daughter

by Michael Swanwick

Rating: ★★★★★

The Iron Dragon's Daughter presents a Fairyland which delicately balances the flavours of a Celtic court with a cruel mirror image of the modern world's industry, education and urban life. The style is unique, hammering home the sense of a system which is almost intentionally malicious, yet filled with a strange kind of dark beauty.

Our changeling hero is a creature so rife with contradiction that she appears almost to be a real person. Making an unlikely escape from the dragon factory where she is enslaved from a young age, she goes on to suffer a high-school environment designed to break a vow of celibacy and is cast aside by her protector. Nonetheless manipulating her way into a scholarship programme, she heads to university, where she learns why sex is so important for making your experiments work, and learns to live in a city where the tension between the cruel ruling class and the raging mob is periodically purged in a surge of vandalism and violence.

At every turn she is haunted by a recurring pair of friends, reborn in different bodies, and at each turn she finds herself letting them down, even causing their deaths. A guilt-ridden failed virgin and a shoplifter of the highest calibre, she casts around for purpose and finds once again the dragon which freed her and abandoned her, and who now aims at destruction of the highest order -- to tear through reality itself.

Swanwick's Fairyland is as bewildering and terrible as real life, with a sort of beauty that can only be appreciated from afar. An unpredictable plot weaves a sad path through the tumults of the universe, both gripping and depressing. It says something that Melanchthon's plan to destroy the universe strikes the reader not as the grandiose ambition of the insane, but a kind of justified, spiteful stab at the architect of such a terrible place. Surreal and twisted, but definitely worth the read.