Reviews and analysis - The Iron Dragon's Daughter

The Iron Dragon's Daughter coverReview by Roz Kaveney
(This review first appeared in Foundation 61)

The Iron Dragon's Daughter
Millennium (UK), 1993, hardcover

The fine daring of Swanwick's heavily forensic approach to fantasy is embedded even in his title; for years it has been notorious that it always helps a routine fantasy to have the word 'dragon' in the title, and the formation 'adjectival noun+noun in genitive case+third noun' is almost parodistically normative.

Anyone picking up Swanwick's first fantasy novel expecting comfort will soon find their fingers seared; there are many themes in this expertly complex book, but one of them is that of refusal, a refusal embodied not least in the attitude to cliched handling of generic tropes. It is a refusal, moreover, which is in a variety of ways bracingly punitive of its likely readership.

This is set in a faerie world that is, and is not, the America of dreams and nightmares. After her childhood as a factory slave in a nightmare of shop-floor intrigue and in-group pressures, Jane finds herself first at a high-school where the equivalent of the Homecoming Queen is a sacred victim set to grill on a bonfire, and then at a university where low grades are liable to leave one vulnerable to city-wide riot and winnowing. Jane leads her life in situations of constant anxiety, rendered worse by her light-fingeredness, her treachery to friends and above all her allegiance to the dragon Melanchthon, who prevailed upon her to rescue him from the scrapheap, and has designs of his own. Where much fantasy presents a theodicy that reconciles, Swanwick reflects the real world only to remind us of the nightmares we continually accept, the dues we let others pay for us.

This dragon is no pony-substitute - rather more a personal tempter, an exponent of an almost entirely negative view of the possibilities of happiness in the world of which, for most of the novel's length, Swanwick seems determined unequivocally to persuade us, by any means necessary or feasible. This is a novel which refuses almost all consolations, and disappoints all expectations; Jane, like so many heroines before her, is an accomplished thief with no particular regard for property rights, but, unlike most of her peers, she is allowed by Swanwick to get over-ambitious, to suffer the consequences of being caught. The consequences are not, it turns out, all that they might have been; Jane continually escapes, but only into a worse set of problems.

The bleakness of Swanwick's world is that Jane is human in a magic world, and is forced, at every step, to pay the extortionate prices that magic charges - a drop of blood, the sweat of sex, other people's hearts and souls. For once in a fantasy, the whole process of gaining power hurts; Swanwick refuses to allow Jane's adventures to be a romp or a wish-fulfillment. This is a world in which people pay for what they want, with their eyes open to the cost. Gwen, the wicker queen, knows that she would rather have the glory of a painful death than accept a second-rate life without the intensity of her short-lived fame and wealth; Melanchthon knows that the price of a victory over things as they are will be to never have been, and revels in it. Their tragedy is that the game is rigged; the prices are set by the Goddess who rules all, and set entirely arbitrarily.

Of course, other people have to pay a price as well; Gwen has her beloved Peter to act as her sin-eater, to suffer all the hangovers and sexual tiredness that she cannot afford to have marring her beauty. Jane repeatedly lets others take on suffering she cannot or will not bear; she forces her fellow-student Sirin to reveal the alchemical formulae she has not worked out for herself at the cost of Sirin's embroiling herself with drug-dealing SM top elven lords, and Jane's survival in the winnowing of the Teind is at the expense of almost every friend she has. The bleakness of this novel lies not least in the fact that its heroine is so entirely ruthless, involves us so entirely in that complicity which makes her every crime seem a reasonable response to her circumstances.

Swanwick demonstrates that eternal return is a nightmare; Jane finds herself making the same mistakes at a higher level time and time again - she beats herself against the glass walls of life until she is ready to end everything along with herself. In each of the phases of her life - drudge, high-school, university, minor celebrity - she has the chance to make things right, and each time she takes the easier root of sacrificing her friends, her mirror-images and above all the perpetually recurring youths - Rooster, Peter, Puck and Rocket - who share a True Name and therefore at some level an identity. Each time she lets the dragon make her decisions for her, and each time the dragon deceives and betrays her; eternal return means among everything else always coming back for more.

Melanchthon argues that the universe is fundamentally malignant, that, if there is a nautilus goddess at the heart of the spiral castle that a constantly self-reiterating fractal universe resembles, she glories in pain. Certainly Swanwick constructs a world which should give pause to anyone persuaded by standard Celtiads and witch-fancying tales of matriarchy; bloodbath and brutality are the order of the day here - one of the reasons it is hard for us not to side with Jane is that much of what she is guilty of is simply a matter of refusing to be a victim. Her friends die of industrial accidents, drug overdoses, being absorbed by a stronger personality, falling from high places, suicide, burning and accelerated time; Jane herself survives the cajoling of therapy- talking cajoling gargoyles, the threats of well-armed militarist ants and a schizophrenic enchantress who wants to turn her into a pig. Swanwick has constructed a plausible universe simply because he refuses to skim over the surface of the tropes; he forces us to note the price tag on everything.

The high elven lords here are genuinely powerful and glamorous; they are also completely ruthless in their exploitation of everything and everyone that can be exploited to provide them with more power or with more entertainment. There is grim satire on the yuppie era here and on the pleasures we take for granted - it is not as if the pleasures of the high and the mighty are fine or intellectual. Jane weasels her way into the circles of the powerful and finds herself slumming with them in low dives where armless trolls are sexually stimulated into prophesy. Worse, at every point in this world where we meet a wild oracular magic with no particular price tag on it, we recognize it as, not the great secrets its auditors suppose, but as the mere verbal detritus of our own lives - slogans, gossip, old news broadcasts. For the greater part of this book, Swanwick refuses us a single break from high-gloss gloom; the class politics of his faerie are particularly mordant in the messages they imply about our own world and its economics. Swanwick is not the only American fantasist to deal with class - Shepherd and Crowley do so in some depth and even a commercial Low High fantasist like Hambly has had some useful things to say; he is here, though, as savage as the SF of Jack Womack in his anger at what we self-servingly choose to take for granted.

When a break in the gloom comes, in the slingshot ending, with Jane apparently returned to the world of the mundane, and faerie a thing of delusions that she has set aside, or from which she has been expeditiously removed, we find ourselves not quite prepared to take it. This is not a vulgar matter of 'she awoke, and it was all a dream', so much as a sudden, equally arbitrary decision by the Goddess to brush Melanchthon aside like an insect, to dispose of his human accomplice in her proper place.

Swanwick's refusal of the obvious, his insistence on the humiliating, extends to a refusal to have Jane punished, to console us for the crimes we have committed vicariously through her by providing the closure of punishment. Jane is let off, given yet another chance at someone who may or may not prove to be Rooster-Rocket-Peter-Puck all over again. Jane is free of the dragon and the corroding pessimism into which he has manipulated her; if she fails this time - and her mundane world is so effortlessly successful that Swanwick gets over it in a few entirely plausible and satisfying paragraphs - if she fails, it will at least be on her own merits and through her own comparatively free choices. If we feel this slingshot as something of a let-down, it is because Swanwick intends us to; in the end, it is the satire that counts here, it is us that are left squirming on the hook.

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