When I first read this Michael Swanwick classic, it was as a Fantasy Masterworks edition. But if you’re looking for a typical ‘fantasy’ read, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter isn’t one. The book could well have been included in Gollancz’s companion series SF Masterworks because it packs in enough science fiction elements to qualify, but it isn’t a typical science fiction story either. It invokes the tropes and elements of science fiction – and fantasy – only to subvert them. Sure, there are many novels you could say this about today, those that blur the boundaries, but when The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was first published in 1993, it was in many ways, the first of its kind.
The titular dragon isn’t the typical dragon as you’d expect. Instead, Swanwick’s iron dragon is made of metal and is a steam-powered flying cybernetic war machine; a sentient fire-breathing jet fighter with wings if you will. And the daughter isn’t your typical ‘hero’, with all of the word’s connotations of morality, selflessness and nobility. Perhaps to refer to as the book’s main protagonist would be a better way to describe Jane Alderberry – taken from her home, pushed into a world with an assortment of magical creatures – including hags, dwarves and satyrs – and put to work (read slave away) in a factory that makes dragons. Trapped as a changeling in a harsh, industrialised fairie world ruled by aristocratic elves, two things happen which set in motion a spiral of events: Jane makes friends with Rooster and comes across a grimoire, which turns out to be an operating manual for a dragon (sl. no.7332). The old, non-functional dragon promises Jane a chance to escape from her futile existence if only she helps him by restoring him so that he can function as normal again. After a failed attempt – which results in the death of a friend – Jane is finally able to break free with the iron dragon’s help. A dragon called Melanchthon, whose name Jane forces from him without knowing that its endgame is nothing but the complete destruction of the entire world itself.
Following her successful escape, Jane finds herself in a new world, and with Melanchthon having exhausted his powers, starts attending high school. But this world is new only on the surface. It is as hellish as her previous one and populated with people that look familiar from a life past. After a series of horrific events and some manipulation, Jane escapes again – this time on her own – only to find herself in an equally unforgiving world as she attends university in the city, amidst new people with old souls. Characters reincarnated, reborn, recast in new roles, and at each stage, redemption is there for the taking, if only the anti-hero Jane would choose to.
Jane instead chooses to reunite with Melanchthon, who offers her a chance at an escape from her futile existence, if only she helps him by restoring him, which she does. And if that wasn’t enough, Jane makes the same wrong decisions with the same results, as Jane and Melanchthon make their final approach to assault the centre of the universe itself, the Spiral Castle. If you think this is the climax, it isn’t because Jane’s encounters in the Spiral Castle, and their revelations thereof, only seek to push Jane into an existential crisis and soon find herself amidst humans again, looking to build herself a life anew but as always, nothing’s as it seems.
A novel about lies, death, love and loss, manipulation and sacrifice, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was – and still is – hailed as a classic not just for its treatment of SF/F tropes and upending of the genre’s various clichés, but also for Swanwick’s inventive storytelling, narrative style and his prose. To be sure it’s not the easiest book to read – not least because of its treatment of themes such as virginity, class struggle, free will and destiny, but also the way it looks starkly at sex and murder – but the reader will feel rewarded for having taken the time and effort to have read it to its last page, as the story doesn’t so much end as it seems to coil back on itself. China Miéville said of the book that it, “Examines the industrial revolution, the Vietnam War, racism and sexism, and the escapist dreams of genre fantasy.”, while the SF critic John Clute called it “an anti-fantasy.” The Iron Dragon’s Daughter has since been described as elf punk, industrial fantasy, steampunk, grimdark, even cyberpunk, one could say that it simultaneously fits all these labels, and doesn’t. The one thing though that this book surely is, is an essential SF/F read.
Michael Swanwick would revisit the world of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and explore it further with his 2008 novel, The Dragons of Babel about a crippled dragon that crowns itself king as it makes a village in Faerie its home, while taking residence in the mind of a young man named Will le Fey, an event that leads to Fey finds himself on an adventure to find himself and his truth. The third book set in this world, the standalone novel, The Iron Dragon’s Mother, is all set to publish – as Swanwick returns to a post-industrial faerie world with a promise that ‘all stories must end’ – in six weeks. Ample time to (re)read The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and familiarise yourself with its world. Happy reading!