“She didn’t know that the dragons were coming for her.” With good reason: Dragons rarely intrude into American hospital wards, but it’s in that incongruous setting that Michael Swanwick begins his new novel, The Iron Dragon’s Mother. We meet Helen V. at the end of an interesting—she’s “gone scuba-diving in the Maldives [and] found herself inexplicably judging an air guitar competition in an unlicensed slum bar in Johannesburg [and] spent a summer trying to convert a rusty old Ferrari to run on vegetable oil because she’d fallen in love with a boy who wanted to save the world”—but ultimately unsatisfied life. She’s dying in a hospital with no visitors, little grace, and few consolations. She derives her scant pleasures from tormenting her caretakers with snark and allusion; they retaliate by delivering sermons or withholding morphine. She’s a lifelong walker-out and escaper-from; since she can’t leave the hospital, she’s immersed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which posits “an instant of freedom” at the very moment of death. She doesn’t believe, but she’s willing to try: “Crap and nonsense” it may be, but “still, escape is escape.”
And so Helen dies, and Helen leaps, and Helen finds herself in another person’s head in another person’s world.
Her unwilling host, Caitlin of House Sans Merci, pilots an iron dragon in the service of Her Absent Majesty of Faerie. Caitlin is the half-mortal daughter of an ancient elven house; her mother and father in their enchanted mansion, with its invisible servants and hidden chambers and flukey portals to sunken cities, compete to see who can be more aristocratically amoral and Gothically cruel, but Caitlin remains close to her politely dissolute and louchely charming full-elven brother, the heir Fingolfinrhod. Caitlin is one of the very first women to earn her pilot’s wings, but she only flies one mission to completion before in short order she’s accused of betraying the realm and killing her brother. She’s left framed, friendless, and flightless, but between her determination and Helen’s experience—the late inhabitant of Earth makes her presence in Caitlin’s mind known at an opportune moment—she believes she can clear her name and regain her position.
There’s a capital-C Conspiracy against Caitlin. In one of the book’s best touches, we discover that Faerie Conspiracies are essentially corporations, complete with headquarters, branch offices, interdepartmental rivalries, and internecine bureaucracies. Swanwick treats money and class and capitalism as ur-conspiracies, but patriarchy surpasses all three in cruelty and influence. The Iron Dragon’s Mother is the rare feminist fantasy novel by a man. The author is well aware of the many terrible things males—“men” is the wrong word when discussing a novel populated by gods, demiurges, tritons, elves, and so on—do, and he doesn’t shy away from depicting them. The women Swanwick depicts are strong and clever, but they’re not necessarily good. They’re neither plaster saints nor parody whores; they’re flawed individuals.
A catalogue of the assaults, abuses, attacks, and crimes that feature in The Iron Dragon’s Mother might make it sound a thoroughly nasty book. On their journey, Caitlin and Helen encounter every variety of ugliness and cruelty, including some offstage scenes of sexual abuse. But not once did I feel that violence or horror were intended for voyeurism or titillation; if the abject or the sordid or the horrific are needed, Swanwick will employ them, but he does not trot them out for their own sake. In short, The Iron Dragon’s Mother is gritty, but the grittiness isn’t the sort that characterizes the “grimdark” school of fantasy. Every obscenity in Swanwick’s Faerie has its counterpart on Earth.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother runs nearly 400 pages, which makes it short for a contemporary fantasy, but I have rarely encountered a novel less padded. Swanwick is as economical with words as he is profligate with effects: He doesn’t over-explain, confident as he is that the details he seeds will blossom into an entire world in his readers’ imaginations. There’s enough invention in this one volume to stock whole shelves, but Swanwick works by implication, not elaboration. We hear of Faerie’s deities, and even encounter some, but not once do we read a disquisition on their powers or a précis of their cults. Centaurs and tritons and rusalkas and haints appear; we glean their roles in the Faerie society from close reading of the text, not a skim of the appendix.
Again and again, The Iron Dragon’s Mother accomplishes more with four letters than other writers might achieve with five full pages and attendant footnotes. So for example, Caitlin escapes persecution by her wits and clever employment of a tarp of invisibility. If I had to pick an emblem for Caitlin’s world, I might choose that tarp. A cloak of invisibility has glamour; any heroine who gathers a cloak of invisibility over her shoulders gathers also romance, adventure, and mystery. But what romance can attach to a tarp? With that single word, Swanwick renders the impossible quotidian.
At this point in the review, I must make an unpleasant admission. The Iron Dragon’s Mother is the third volume of a trilogy that began in 1993 with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and continued fifteen years later with The Dragons of Babel. Now, if you’re at all like me, the only thing you hate more than starting in the middle of a series is starting at the end. If you’ve read the first two books, I don’t know why you’re reading this review instead of the book: You’ve ventured into the alleys and factories and manses and woods of Swanwick’s Faerie and should be eager to return. If you’ve not read Daughter or Babel, I’m happy to report that The Iron Dragon’s Mother stands on its own. There are thematic connections and minor plot linkages, to be sure, but the Dragon books can be read in any order. Innocence of earlier books won’t compromise your experience of this one, though I’m sure this third novel will inspire many readers to hunt down the previous two.
I could go on and on about this book. I could talk about the wonderful allusions (like that in Faerie, Bohemia has a coast) and in-jokes (like a suggestive misquotation of Henry James); I could talk about its humor, about its connections to the other two Dragon books and its fairy tale structure. This is one of the best fantasies of the year; if it doesn’t go up for next season’s awards, I will be stunned and disappointed. You should read it.
Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.