February 23, 2008
Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel
Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter is one of the classics of recent fantasy, combining a compelling storyline with a rich, imaginative, genre-redefining setting. Given that, it's understandable that Swanwick has written a sequel, and it's laudable that he held out for 14 years before doing so. It's also inevitable that the sequel falls short of the original.
The Dragons of Babel follows a half-mortal village boy who becomes caught up in a war, escapes into the underworld of a great city, bluffs his way into high society and eventually achieves -- and escapes -- his birthright. The story is conventional enough and its primary purpose is to join together the episodes in which Swanwick shows off his weird and wonderful world.
And those episodes are pretty good. Sometimes they're industrial-era vignettes translated into the vocabulary of Swanwick's Faerie, but even these work pretty well. The segment in the prison camp, for example, is well told, and garnished with just enough eeriness to give it an aura of the fantastic without destroying its impact. Other times they are heroic fantasy tales transposed into a decadent, modernistic context. The segment with the rebels in the underground, riding to battle on horses and motorbikes, provides not only a fun image but ultimately also a telling insight into Swanwick's world.
The problem with The Dragons of Babel is that it is content to live within that world, to take it as a fact and explore it as one would any other fantasy world, from Middle-Earth to New Crobuzon. The Iron Dragon's Daughter, in contrast, teetered constantly on the brink of doubt: its echoes of and references to the real world created a vertiginous sense of ambiguity. Much of the thrill of the earlier novel came from the tension between the fantastic and the real. In The Dragons of Babel that tension is fatally missing. There are some desultory references -- Swanwick reuses the trick of turning quotes that are well-known to the reader into gnomic prophecies -- but ultimately Swanwick's world has become just another fantasyland.
Admittedly, Swanwick had to do something different this time around: he couldn't just trot out the same threads that drove The Iron Dragon's Daughter and change the name of the hero. But instead of trying to find some other way to create the sense of wonder that the earlier novel did, to add another level to the setting, The Dragons of Babel settles for revisiting the surface fantasyland without worrying about what might or might not lie beneath.
Still, as fantasylands go, Swanwick's merits this modest tour far more than most of those that get a three-volume epic. There's no lack of fun to be had here, with clever vixens, ribald centaurs, ennui-stricken lords, clerks by day who are sexy thieves by night, confidence tricksters who are more than they seem, and so on and so on. It's a pleasant enough read, but one which sadly misses the point of what made The Iron Dragon's Daughter so extraordinary.
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