Saturday, May 12, 2007

Book Review: The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

Grade: A
"The intent of the Goddess is neither known nor knowable. She makes us dance, male and female, in ever converging gyres that bring us ultimately each to our own destiny, and that destiny is always the same and never escapable. She does not tell us why."

"'Woe!' he cried. 'Alas for those who seek after Truth, for such is the Goddess's most hoarded treasure. Ah, she is cruel and unfathomable, and bitter, bitter is her vengeance.'"

This one's for ThyGoddess. She wasn't originally chalked up to go first, but she did insist, and some, um, beings you don't want to disappoint. (Plus, I feel like I owe her one.)


If you think about it, the old tales were always scary. They were, if not ostensibly, always morality fables, trying to pin the caprice of nature to a human ethical map. If the fairy stories lost their puissance over the last couple hundred years, it's because people found modern things to fear, things of their humanity's own making. At its core, Swanwick's novel uses the lessons and characters of the old tales to capture the horrors of a contemporary setting, and finds that the fit is, um, fantastic. I love this book.

And what god (or goddess) isn't an exaggeration of human qualities? Whether we're talking mercy (the antithesis of nature) or vital randomness (the essence of it), we've painted our pantheon with the mirrors close by, anthropomorphizing the cold universe with all of our human spite and wonder. In the context of the story, it's an open question who painted the spiral universe of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The novel concerns the early life of Jane, a human girl, trapped in a fey world. She starts off indentured to a factory that would do Dickens proud, filled with sprites and trolls and elves in the roles of workers, supervisors, and plant engineers. It is, of course, a formative story, and as Jane escapes from one setting to the next (high school, college, high society, false hierarchies all) the evil and the drama and the love is captured in startling hyperbole. I've said it before, if you're going to use a supernatural setting, everything is what you do with it. Swanwick uses the hyper-human personae of the supernatural for satire. I mean, if you're a certain sort of reader you've seen factory trolls and the like a hundred times, but in the real world, the scarier goblins are in the bureaucracy, and some of the Swanwick's vignettes with these creatures are classic (failed engineers mutilated for shame, a bibliophile bookseller who can't part with his stock, an ancient professor decanted once a year for a lecture). I can't say that Swanwick's prose is across-the-board fabulous, but when he gets rolling with his synthesis of fantastic and mundane language, he is outstanding. I especially loved the chemistry.

I'm impressed with the structure of this story too. As it develops, it grows a feeling that the world's coming apart at the seams, even while the story retains an overall coherence. Jane graduates from one society to another, escapes each really, and in each setting, the stakes get higher, ultimately threatening the consensus reality itself. She goes through several iterations of a life's drama (without losing the overall dramatic arc), and the drama is exaggerated to frightening proportions. She's a heroine (a self-made chemist!) with tragic flaws (a thief, a floozy). The situations are at times shocking--sexual, violent--but I found myself biting my lip as Jane struggles to find her destiny each time, all the while losing to a growing and nearly unavoidable temptation. She breaks through each wall, bodies (literally) in her wake, to find herself living the same story in a new setting. It would spoil the book, perhaps, to reveal what the established reality is (or isn't), but even the ending is not conclusive.

The Goddess of this book is something like a prime mover or a demiurge, and favors the human girl stuck in fairy world. The final loop takes us through a double thick layer of metaphors for hope and fatalism--does the universe give a shit or not?--and it's favorite source of quotes for me. Where has Jane been? Is she really free? What's it all mean for any of us? Read it. I've seen this done before, but rarely this well.


hipparchia said...

giggleswich lankenvar: i swear these word verifications are getting goofier...

goddesses should always go first. good choice. great title.

i'm never going to make it all the way through my "to read" list, not even if i live to be 137. most of the titles i just add on at the end of the list, but i have a few separate sections for books with extra qualifications. one of those sections is titled "keifus said so."

hkudn: haiku kudzu of the north

Keifus said...


Swanwick isn't on for all of his novels really, but this one was special. I read it ten years ago: shocking, creepy, fascinating, and, it turned out, indelible.

(Managed an edit on my trip to the grocery store this morning, yay. I'm sitting in my car outside the local middle school, stealing their wireless. I wonder if they keep a log?)

(Also, I need some better drawing tools, if I'm going to continue abusing people's icons. If I could have, I would have given the goddess a comfy pillow too.)


Thy Goddess said...

I love it.

First, I absolutely love what you've done to my icon.

Second, I have not read the book (will do so pronto) but you probably had only a vague idea what a perfect choice this book really was...on many levels. You are so insightful and brilliant.

Third, you owe me nothing. (Is this about my "stop bitching and write" comment?) You should not need anyone's encouragement to write. Just do.

Leaving tonight but will continue to check my favorite blogs sporadically.

Thank you for "doing me" first. ;)

Bite oftheweek said...

Very very cool what you are doing, K!

This review was spot-on. Going on my reading list.

I can't wait to see what you come up with for all of those guys--great list. Sad I was not on it

Keifus said...

Glad you liked it, TG.

If you get down to it, I don't know any of you people really well, so it's impressions only, and vague and imperfect ones at that. But yeah, it seemed to fit with what you project. (Yup, maybe "owed" wasn't the right word, but appreciated, especially right then.)

Bite, go ahead and recommend something that feels right for you, or for anyone else who's missing. I plan to keep adding to the list as I find fits--it'll probably go on for a few months anyway. (I'd be reading anyway, and it's an interesting way to choose new stuff.)


twiffer said...

you turned thygoddess into a red X?

Keifus said...

fixed. (dunno what happened)

twiffer said...

that's better.

gremlins, i suspect.

hipparchia said...

my dream job: anything that would let me drive around the country producing either words on pictures on stolen wireless. freelance, or telecommute for just one employer, it wouldn't matter. just me, the dog, the laptop, the car, the cell phone. i'd start by checking out all the beaches....

a drawing program [almost as great as photoshop]

vtsbivur: vestibules of virulence

hipparchia said...

ps. [this is getting to be a habit -- my apologies] how could you not know us? we've all been conversing with each other, in pairs and in groups, on every imaginable subject, with a unique mix of dropped inhibitions and raised personal "firewalls" that's nearly unattainable irl. don't know about you, but it's been a heady experience for me.

eqmkhes: skehmet's equations

hipparchia said...

bah. that would be sekhmet, also spelled sekmet or sekhemet.

kjlng: art linkletter

Keifus said...

I got lucky with the school. (I tried the library first.)

And you're right about the knowing people of course...although it's gotten to teh point where it's weird how few I've met in person. Yeah, a heady experience.

GIMP, eh? It's gotta beat the unholy combination of powerpoint and "paint" that I've been messing with. Over hte past five years, I've done figures for thirty or forty proposals (some of them I've even won) with only microsoft, and I detest it.

(Although the iconoclasm I did for august came out great that way. I hope you don't mind the number 4 spot in the reading order--I want to put you back to back with another classic satire.)

Keifus said...

also, how'd you get art linkletter out of that? He spend a lot of time cajoling?

hipparchia said...

that one came out of left field didn't it? [or from beyond the grave] i dunno how it got here, but the thoughts in my head aren't always connected by straight lines.

paint is what you make of it, though to be honest i doubt i'll ever be that good. powerpoint is great fun, but you're right when you call that an unholy combination.

rwkds: real-world kudos
vcnpb: viet cong & peanut butter