The Iron Dragon’s Daughter: I could have enjoyed this book…if I was on acid

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Michael Swanwick The Iron Dragon's DaughterThe Iron Dragon’s Daughterfantasy and science fiction book reviews by Michael Swanwick

Some people don’t like to admit that they didn’t “get” a book, but I’m secure enough with myself to say that I didn’t get this one.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter started off well. Jane is a human changeling who works in a Faerie factory that makes flying iron dragons for weapons. Jane and the other child slave laborers (who are a mix of strange creatures) are entertaining and bring to mind Lord of the Flies and that scene in Sid’s room from Pixar’s Toy Story. Michael Swanwick’s writing style is fluid and faultless.

There are flashes of Valente-esque creativity: a timeclock with a temper, a meryon (whatever that is) civilization similar to that in A Bug’s Life, a conniving jar-bound homunculus, gryphons who dive for thrown beer cans. I truly enjoyed these parts of the book and understand why Mr. Swanwick has won so many prestigious awards.

But, after Jane escapes from the dragon factory, the whole thing plummets like a lead dragon and it never returns to its former glory. The writing style is still lovely, but the plot is — I don’t think I’ve ever used this word in a review before — awful. I hated it.

Jane was never a sympathetic heroine, but after her escape she turns into a remorseless foul-mouthed thief, drug-user, slut, and murderer. I didn’t like her or any of her acquaintances. The plot had no order, the world had no rules, everything that happened seemed random, chaotic, and senseless.

Knowing that other people have praised this novel and that it’s sequel (The Dragons of Babel) was nominated for a Locus award, I pressed on. About two-thirds of the way through, I figured out that there was a method to the madness, but the chaotic nihilism was so disturbing that even though I realized it contributed to the entire philosophy of the novel, I still hated it. I think perhaps if I’d dropped some acid, the plot would have arranged itself better in my mind, but alas, I had none to hand.

I think Michael Swanwick is a great writer, but The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was weird, disjointed, obtuse, and inaccessibly bizarre. Surely Swanwick is purposely playing with our expectations about fantasy literature (the title, cover art and publisher’s blurb give us these expectations), but I guess I’m not ready for this much challenge. Call me simple, but usually I like to enjoy what I’m reading.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter — (1993) Publisher: A slave in a dragon factory that manufactures flying fighting machines, Jane changes her destiny when a voice from a dragon promising freedom and revenge prompts her to escape and challenge the foundations of the world.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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