Friday, October 02, 2009

Recent Reading: The Dragons of Babel

by Michael Swanwick

This one took me a while to finish. There were some external reasons for that, but I guess it may have been a bit of a bad sign.

I really rather enjoyed Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, so I was slightly bemused to discover that its sequel didn't seem to be getting UK publication, at least at the time when I looked. Possibly, I should have treated this as a bad sign. However, the Internet offers many solutions to problems, and I picked up an imported US hardback easily enough.

I seem to be hinting that this was a mistake. Well, perhaps it was - but not a catastrophic one. Swanwick can write, and he can also imagine, and his twisted modern vision of fairyland remains impressive. It's just not anything like as impressive this time around.

The Dragons of Babel reuses the picaresque structuring that worked so well in The Iron Dragon's Daughter, opening this time in a rural village in the fairy world. However, the villagers - a diverse bunch, including young Will, who is to be our hero - are painfully aware that there's a war on, and war-dragons duel in the skies above. One of them is damaged, crashes, drags itself into the village, takes over, and selects Will as its mouthpiece, revealing to him subsequently that his survival in that role proves that he must have mortal blood...

At which point, the past reader of The Iron Dragon's Daughter is wincing at the repetitiveness of it all. But Swanwick sidesteps that accusation fairly smoothly, as Will turns monster-slayer and disposes of the dragon within a few pages. A ghost of its personality actually remains in the back of his mind for the rest of the book, but frankly never does very much; we're getting more than a repeated story. We're just not getting as good a story.

Will is exiled from his village for the acts which his entanglement with the dragon induced, and Swanwick begins his clever shifting of stylistic gears, moving from timeless bucolic idyll/hero-tale to 18th century war-zone travelogue to refugee camp story, all the while enriching things with his modernised fairytale tropes. Then the prisoners, Will included, are transported to Babel, capital of fairyland's dominant political power, New York with extreme magical colour saturation and the dials turned up to eleven, and the book settles into what proves to be its favoured mode; pulp-style, street-level urban adventure. Will finds himself apprenticed to the sort of con artist who the pulps lionised and Hollywood came to love, and learns his way around the city, from the depths of its literal (or hallucinatory) underground to the spires from which it is governed. (Meanwhile, people keep telling him their stories, gently padding the text.) The multiplicity of fairy types dwelling here reflects the uneasy urban melting-pot of the pre-WWII USA, with the semi-incorporeal "haints" in particular suffering the casual prejudice (and displaying the flashes of communal strength and tricksy ingenuity) that elsewhere would be associated with black skins. Unfortunately, Swanwick also feels obliged to drop in a lot of detail that links this setting to our own urban reality, notably throwing in a lot of real-world brand names and trademarks - something I don't remember seeing in the earlier book - and the effect for me is merely jarring, a modernisation too far.

Will makes the mistake of falling in love with a woman beyond his reach, his mentor's big con turns out to have complications on its complications, and a dangerous and uncanny hunter wanders in and out of the plot for no reason that I could easily see (but perhaps I failed to analyse the text closely enough - honestly, I couldn't be bothered to try). Eventually the story reaches a resolution of a reasonable sort, adequately bittersweet and with a few flourishes. If I'd never read The Iron Dragon's Daughter, I'd probably have been more impressed - but this story lacks that one's dark visualisation of growing up as a voyage through story, the climax just isn't as hallucinatory or apocalyptic, and there's no real linkage back to mortality from the otherworld this time, despite the hero's mortal blood. It's just a clever exercise in the use of classic fairytale motifs in a modernistic world - rather too many of them, rather too knowing - when we know that Swanwick is capable of much more.

No comments: