The Iron Law: A Review of The Iron Dragon’s Mother, by Michael Swanwick

Fantasy is a versatile genre.  There is classic fantasy, high fantasy, grimdark fantasy, science fantasy, urban fantasy, industrial fantasy, and more.  Any other genre can be combined with fantasy in ways that improve both genres.  The Lord of the Rings is thought of the epitome of classic fantasy, but even that combined a gritty war drama, politics, environmentalism, and linguistics into its story.  The Dresden Files is the quintessential urban fantasy, taking elements of modern-day noir and crime drama alongside its elements of high fantasy.  Then there is industrial fantasy, the combination that often seems the most contradictory.  When we think of elves and gnomes, it is not the natural inclination to imagine their industrial age.  Yet imagining an industrialized fairy tale is exactly what Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother accomplishes.

Michael Swanwick began writing in the 1980’s with short stories, with his first two published short stories both being contenders for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story.  Since then, Swanwick has been a finalist in every major award for science-fiction and fantasy, and has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards since his career began.  In the years since, Swanwick has become a fixture in the fantasy community, with an interest in playing with conventions and re-imagining known tales.  In the Drift, a novel published in 1985, takes the Three Mile Island incident and fictionalizes a more sever version.  Jack Faust re-imagines the classic Faust tale with modern science and technology.  In 1993, Swanwick published The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, the first of his novels to take place in the industrialized world of Faerie.  While The Iron Dragon’s Mother shares a setting and a similar title, it is actually a stand-alone novel in this wonderful world Swanwick created.

The industrialized world of Faerie is a look at what would have happened if classic fairy tales suddenly found themselves going through an industrial revolution.  All the elements one would normally associate with high fantasy—elves, powerful magic, dragons, fairy tale rules, and more—are still present in the story.  But now, the elves are the nobility, the dragons are souls inhabiting what are essentially fighter jets, iPads and cars are everywhere, and fire elementals power freight trains.  This is a collision of practical and magical worlds which does not seem to make sense at first, but feels perfectly natural once you begin reading.  But, just like the real world, there are dark parts hiding behind the wonder.  The dragons are purely malevolent forces, only allowing themselves to be piloted by virgins as they see them as easier to manipulate.  Capitalism is also rampant, with the rich and powerful controlling most of the wealth and forcing the lower classes to fight to survive.  One noble even goes so far as to hide their manor behind a glamor, worried about a possible uprising of the lower class.  The dragon pilots fly regular soul stealing raids to Earth, snatching souls from humans on their death beds.  This is functional, wonderful world, but not a pleasant one.

The Iron Dragon’s Mother follows the story of Caitlin Sans Merci, only daughter and second-born of the noble house of Sans Merci.  She is half-elven, half-human and a pilot in the dragon corps, partnered with a mechanical monster in a squadron of the first female pilots allowed.  A conspiracy is set in motion when Caitlin is framed for the murder of her brother, the heir apparent to House Sans Merci, and is forced to flee rather than submit to eternal imprisonment.  Her flight is assisted by Helen V., a soul from Earth who hitched a ride with Caitlin during her last raid.  The novel is mostly told through the third-person point-of-view of Caitlin, who later goes by Cat to avoid detection, with brief interludes to Helen’s POV.  Cat is a capable character; strong, smart, and adaptable.  While she is willing to take drastic measures and employ violence when necessary, there are still lines she is unwilling to cross.  While on the run, Caitlin decides she cannot be passive, and actively investigate the conspiracy against her, discovering something powerful, far reaching, and utterly unorganized with no clear goal in mind.  Bureaucracy at its best.

Although she is present throughout the story, we only enter Helen’s POV briefly and not very often.  When we meet Helen, she is living in hospice and on her deathbed.  No one comes to visit her and she is equal parts caustic and pathetic in her interactions with her nurses.  On the day of the soul raid, she willingly leaps into the unknown and avoids being captured by the dragons.  In life, Helen appears to have been a Hollywood producer, infinitely familiar with how stories are made, but never created one herself.  She is full of pop culture references and name drops, none of which make sense to Cat or anyone else in Faerie.  While the technology of Earth is everything in Faerie, none of the culture was appropriated.  Helen serves as an advisor to Caitlin throughout the story, the voice in her head always pushing for nonchalance and self-preservation.  While Caitlin strives to take down the conspiracy, Helen pushes her to live her own life and leave the conflicts behind.  Although Helen is present throughout the story, we never learn her importance, or how important she is, until late.  The story is being told by Caitlin, and she makes herself the main character.

The tone of The Iron Dragon’s Mother fluctuates behind silly, nihilistic, optimistic, and a few others.  Cat wants to unravel the conspiracy and uncover the mystery of where her brother disappeared to, but her motivations are purely selfish.  She does not seem to care what the conspiracy’s goals are and just wants to clear her name.  Multiple times, Cat makes it clear she wants her military commission back, no mater how unrealistic the goal may seem.  For the most part, both her and Helen are selfish characters.  Helen rides along with her and pushed for self-preservation as she wants to be free as well.  Neither truly care about the greater events of the world, at least not at first.  Along the way, Cat takes advantage of people, lies, steals, and becomes very good at it.  The few times she decides to open herself up and trust someone, they either betray her or leave her without warning.  In the end, while the conspiracy’s plans are thwarted, the world does not change in any major way.  For most of the world, life goes on as if nothing had happened.  However, both Cat and Helen grow and change as people, performing a small act of kindness as a finale.  In the end, that is the best most of us can hope for.

The Iron Dragon’s Mother can be a difficult novel to pick up.  While it is not a sequel to The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, it does share a world and Swanwick does not always explain every concept or aspect of Faerie.  The novel asks you to trust in the story and the characters, and go along for the ride.  Once you begin reading, it is very easy to get lost in the world and trust that everything makes sense to the characters.  At no point did the novel slow or lose my attention, even as things happened without too much explanation.  This novel is a great work of modern fantasy, industrial or otherwise, and serves to show how versatile this genre really is.

The Iron Dragon’s Mother can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: The Outlaw and the Upstart King, by Rod Duncan

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