Up and down the seventeen boroughs of Babel Will [who is the protagonist of all he surveys] let his consciousness flow from haint to troll and dwarf to stickfella, through hobthrushes, nocnictas, and night-gaunts, street-corner wise guys, traffic cops, kitty-witches, milchdicks, a russalka pretending to hump the pole in a titty bar, cynocephali, onis, a cluricaun dying in a small room above a bar, mawkies, coin clippers, pastry chefs, rogues and innocents, opportunistic weaklings, corrupt lawyers and saintly plumbers, clabber-snappers, vodniks, longshoremen-poets, a street-sweeper spending his last thirteen dollars on lottery tickets, igoshas, itchikitchies, muggers and remittance men, red-diaper babies, bricklayers, heartbreakers, commodities brokers, a desperate klude changing to her dog form before raiding a restaurant dumpster, haberdashers, fishmongers, bouncers, lexicographers, a korigan dreaming of bygone days on the Broadway stage, Ukrainians and Ruthenians, laboratory inspectors, proud hags and war-scarred battleaxes, nixies, nymphs, heiresses, kinderofenfrauen, foolish virgins, doting grannies, hopeful monsters.
These are not, of course, folk whose innards we might peruse in a novel of character. They are, in general, what I've been inclined to called Dictates or Utterands of Story: figures transparent to the telling of what they do, storyables, pawns, candides, beloveds of some godgame-fabricating god. (Swanwick certainly loves them, and paints those we actually meet with porcelain care.) And they all have one thing in common—in common with each other, and with almost any character in any great tale of fantasy—something one might call nichedness.
Nichedness is something we're familiar with from the Hard SF novel, where in a sense it does not really belong, for it is surely deficient in genuine "science" to create the kind of aliens who—like the Moties in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye (1974)—fit exactly into immensely complicated environments, and who are therefore in evolutionary terms entirely specialized for those environments alone: which is exactly not how one would describe the only dominant intelligent species we know of, ourselves staring in the mirror. If one thing characterizes us, it is precisely that we are not very well adapted to any niche, but have evolved into superb opportunists capable of winning every battle with the world except the last. Hard SF worthy of the name should eschew these fantasy creatures.
We've also run across the condescending nichedness bestowed upon breeds without the law in the 1940s Unknown, and in sophisticated omnium gatherums like John Myers Myers's Silverlock (1949), and in many of the science fantasies of later decades, not excluding a few written by Niven himself, who must be the master inventor of the niche species. It is certainly the case that Swanwick's punnings of techno and fanta—like for instance his dragons who are, in both this book and its predecessor, sentient iron machines of war crafted in great foundries by magic beings—sometimes verge on reductionism which evacuates nichedness of true magic, sometimes giving off a sense that (for instance) his dragons can be too fully explained in euhemerist terms as being "only" machines, that Babel is only Manhattan in a fever-dream, that his Utterands of Story are only immigrants locked into menial non-protagonist jobs for life: but these moments of mundanity do not survive long in the fire of his telling.
We return to the nichedness of his back-cast, and to the absolutely explicit story-bound destiny his central protagonist fulfills in The Dragons of Babel (for Will le Fey is also niched in place), and we return to a tale whose very speed burns euhemerism—which is the process of interpreting myths as being mundane events misunderstood by the primitive folk who tell stories about the world—to ash. In fantasy, to be niched is to be told. Nichedness in fantasy is a specific instance of the "undue coherence" of Story in general, and its extreme visibleness in this novel only intensifies a sense that we are in a realm where truth is uttered via markers. I am working on an essay at the moment on some continuities linking John Buchan's Greenmantle (1916) with J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954—5), which I expect to call "The Cossacks Are Coming!" unless somebody else already has. The underlying argument of the piece is that certain coherences of story are inherently fantastical; that high-profile coincidences and concinnities fecund with niche are inherent markers of the genuine flow of story; that in the enthralling speed of story, coherence is what happens next; that—I was writing just after Arthur C. Clarke had died—any story sufficiently advanced to have become entirely visible is indistinguishable from magic.
The Dragons of Babel is in this sense pure magic.
The story itself is glittering patchwork braided around a time-honoured central spine: that spine being the Hidden Monarch tale, in which a lowly young male (but read the ending of The Dragons of Babel) of unknown parentage is magically guided (or if he is Gene Wolfe's Severian guides himself) through various trials and travails towards the throne, which he finally mounts. It is possible at times in Dragons to forget that spine—some of the back-story anecdotes (previously published in The Dog Said Bow-Wow from 2007) Swanwick has laced into his main narrative are maybe a tad centrifugal—but it can be forgottten only when the knotted din and glamour of this created world distract the attention, because the literal non-figurative truth of Will's destiny is never actually contradicted. When a stranger he does not know to be his father tells him he is the king to come, we forgive him for not jumping a mile: but I think we are intended to clock the utterance of the stranger who must be the refusenik King whose absence has been destroying the coherence of his Land.
Will le Fey is born and raised in a country village as war looms between the West, where he resides, and the East, whose war dragons enthrall him as they shatter the air overhead on the very first page. One of them is brought down by a basilisk and the crippled creature/weapon takes over the village. It selects Will to be its voice, infiltrating his mind (as a very nasty drug might) and addicting him to its imperious inner voice. Any reader of modern fantasy wrought to its uttermost may assume, safely, that the inner voice of the dragon will literally inhabit Will for the rest of his life, uttering itself and him in various contexts with a suddenness and complexity of consequence far too complex for metaphor.
After morally debasing experiences as numinous factotum of the dragon, Will begins his long escape (or immurement) and climb (or descent) to the throne of the empire of the East, which is centred in the Breugelesque angelcake of Babel: that upended, phallic, ratking Manhattan. There is a lot of Berliny cabaret sex spooking the nooks and crannies of the story (any integration of sex into personal growth, or any other YA implications of the first pages of Babel are soon scrubbed, and we soon lose any sense that he is any age in particular) and a lot of death and betrayal, but any synopsis of a tale whose surface is so seamy with riches, and whose inner structure is so learned about the worlds of story it knits together, might lose itself in fractals. So dazzled at times is Will himself that he suffers overload, like an overfull memory stick, and at one point experiences "a profound desire to be rewritten that was so strong as to almost be a prayer: Great Babel, mother of cities, take me in, absorb me, dissolve me, transform me. For just this once, let one plus one not equal two. Make me into someone else. Make that someone everything I am not."
Fat chance. What Babel tells him—what Swanwick's glittering obedience to the drum of story tells him—is tough luck, old son, you're niched. Will continues as he must, into the increasingly rich world that increasingly underscores what has already been written: Will le Fey is bound for glory. His inner voice exhales its poison of iron and blood. A boy he has killed whispers wisdom in his ear. The small girl he befriends turns out to be inconceivably ancient, a woman who has bargained all the valences of her life away in order to be eternally young, without derailing memories, a luck-eater who unknowingly, uncaringly tweaks the storyline, binds him more and more tightly into the geas that turns him. He meets his father, though he does not know this. A young woman on a hippogriff bares her breasts at him and he falls in love with her, as she must have intended. There is much more. It is all utterly simple—in this The Dragons of Babel differs radically from The Iron Dragon's Daughter—but titivated throughout by sleights-of-hand which invisibly unveil the truths told plain upon the page. (To say that true story is story made entirely visible is not to say that the tools of the magician must be seen. What is magic is what is made.)
The Dragons of Babel is a glory of the late maturity of our kind of world.
John Clute (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror. He is currently working on a third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and preparing a volume of reviews, Houston Do You Read.