Helen is a human television producer who is past ninety and near death. She spends her last hours cantankerously arguing with nurses, but then, at the moment she dies, her soul is stolen by faeries. Everyone knows from stories about changelings that faeries kidnap children, not very old people, but, well, mistakes were made.
However it might have been done in the past, these days faeries steal souls by having half-human pilots fly dragons across the gulf between our world and the land of Faerie. Caitlin is one of these pilots, and the accidental theft of Helen’s soul is the first in a chain of events that sees Caitlin framed for murder, and Helen’s spirit trapped inside Caitlin’s mind. Caitlin escapes from custody and, alone but for Helen’s only occasionally helpful voice in her mind, she must live by her wits in Faerie while she tries to clear her name.
Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother is what you might call a double crossover fantasy. It’s a crossover in the traditional sense, since Helen crosses from Earth into the parallel realm of Faerie. But although Swanwick populates his Faerie with creatures from dozens of folklore traditions, it’s not a static fantasy landscape. So it is also a crossover in that the familiar technology of the modern world has been crossed in strange ways with magic and folklore. Caitlin’s dragon is mostly a jet fighter, with engines, heads-up displays, and avionics, but it is also a demon who despises all life and glories in destruction. Much of the fun of the novel is seeing the ways Swanwick chooses to mix and match fantasy and modernity, providing memorable episodes such as a pregnant train and an evil conspiracy run as a bureaucratic corporation.
Michael Swanwick introduced this setting in 1993’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and visited it again in 2008’s The Dragons of Babel, so The Iron Dragon’s Mother can be said to be the third in a loose trilogy. Rest assured it’s very loose: one side character returns from The Dragons of Babel, and another has a backstory that only really makes sense from having read it, but really all three of these novels can be said to stand individually.
There is, however, a progression to the setting. In The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, the Fairyland of folklore is mixed with the industrial revolution, so that kidnapped human children slave in factories alongside Faerie’s persecuted minorities, while universities teach magic to the children of a growing middle class. The dating isn’t precise, but the dominant feeling is of Dickens and the nineteenth century. The Dragons of Babel, though roughly contemporaneous with the earlier story, nevertheless feels like a story of how the long nineteenth century vanishes amid mechanized warfare and social change. The Iron Dragon’s Mother explicitly moves the setting forward about a generation, but feels only a decade or two behind our own time, a time of women in the military, white-collar office jobs in faceless corporations, and a growing but still very uneven awareness of issues like racism and sexism.
That raises the question: what is Swanwick up to with this setting? If he wants to write fun faerie stories, why not just write about faeries the normal way? Or, since a valid way to describe this book is to say it’s “about a faerie fighter pilot, but it’s really about living in a corrupt world and dealing with death,” why not just write about corruption and death in the real world where both can be found in abundance? To answer the second question, a common defense of genre fiction is that both fantasy and science fiction give us a different perspective on things that don’t change. They defamiliarize the world around us by situating us in the future or a past that never existed, and in doing so they can teach us things about humanity that we wouldn’t otherwise have known.
It’s been sixty-five years since J. R. R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring and spawned a host of imitators, and for most of Swanwick’s readers, fantasy has become deeply familiar. If it’s too familiar, it no longer defamiliarizes. What to do? Some authors, such as those of the New Weird, responded by moving away from Tolkien’s folklore influences, pushing into stranger territory. Swanwick has done the opposite, hewing closely to the peoples and monsters of folklore traditions from around the world (albeit with the occasional references to Tolkien himself, as with Caitlin’s brother, named Fingolfinrhod). But by mixing together elves and Gucci handbags, dwarves and cigarettes, or dragons and jet fighters, Swanwick continually shifts the context his reader must use. Whenever you find yourself getting comfortable, the novel suddenly sounds like this: “With the easy, racist phrasing of his class, her brother said, ‘Well, the kobold is in the henhouse now, to be sure’” (p. 289).
And lest you think that reference to Gucci was a joke, rest assured Swanwick also drops brand names at a reasonable clip:
She unlocked the jewelry cabinet with a touch of one finger and began sorting through brooches, bracelets, and tiaras, almost all of them no longer suitable for a woman her age. Then she saw the Cartier watch—a white gold Tank Americaine—that Father had given her upon her acceptance into the Academy. (p. 44)
It’s never quite made clear how Cartier watches or Kawasaki motorcycles are getting into Faerie when stealing the souls of human children requires sending dragon jets on dangerous missions. Fashion brands are magic words in our culture, often imbuing otherwise typical items with meaning and monetary value, so it seems appropriate somehow that they’d be eagerly adopted by those living in a place with real magic. If you think it matters that they appear even though the vague metaphysics of the story don’t seem to allow large-scale importation of our world’s fashion products, this might not be the book for you.
And if strong plotting is what you’re looking for in fiction, this might not be your book either. The Iron Dragon’s Mother, as with this rough trilogy’s previous two novels, has a discursive and episodic structure. It does have a fairly standard plot with the usual buildup of dramatic tension and closing twists, but en route to the end, the story wanders through episodes that are often distinct not just in time and place but also in tone. At one point, for example, Caitlin is the house guest of an ailing faery with a secret, and there is a clear beginning, development, and conclusion to her relationship with her host before she moves on. In the most memorable of the book’s episodes, Caitlin gets a job doing clerical work for the same conspiracy that framed her for murder and continues to hunt her, an interlude happy enough to let the overall story’s momentum flag so it can linger on an amusing satire of office life.
The overall plot of the novel is, unfortunately, somewhat less effective than the sum of these episodes. The embedded stories are lively and populated by colorful characters, but the overarching narrative is a simple affair made less interesting by the fact it is centered on Caitlin, who is the main protagonist but also the novel’s weakest point. It’s common to have a straightforward protagonist in an unusual setting to give readers a sympathetic entry point, but Caitlin’s motivations feel too simple for such a nuanced setting. Unlike a typical young-adult dystopia, there’s no sense that Caitlin has any chance of overturning the system of the world, nor does she try. That much is rather refreshing, but we aren’t given any clues as to why she accepts it in the face of so much injustice. She doesn’t give up her attempts to recapture the place in her family and in society that she considers rightfully hers, and that’s certainly admirable, but we never see where this determination comes from, or what it might be costing her. To put it another way, Caitlin feels less like a character we can really empathize with and more like a device to explore a dilemma.
Caitlin’s dilemma is that she has seen at first hand how corrupt and exploitative her society can be. What should she do? This is a choice we all must face, since we too live inside systems and societies that are to some extent corrupt and exploitative. A lot of the fiction we read has an answer: burn it down. With a strong will and a scorching righteousness, countless protagonists destroy the evil society that has persecuted them and create something better in its place. At its best, fiction inspires, and there is a time and a place where compromise of any sort shouldn’t be tolerated. But a lot of popular fiction is popular because it flatters, and the truth is it’s flattering to think that one person can change the entire world. Yes, it does happen, but rarely, and at least as often with bad results as with good.
Caitlin tries to be a good person, but she doesn’t fight every injustice she comes across. How could she? She flirts with the idea of finding and liberating the biological mother from whom she was stolen, but even that proves beyond her power. In the end she is content to want something approximating what she deserves. To be honest, even that can be a radical demand. Helen’s advice is that Caitlin should give up her supposed place among a nobility that hates her and just start a new life. I tended to agree, but the book dismisses this as cowardly. Instead, Caitlin is steadfast in clawing her way towards a sort of justice for herself and those immediately around her, and details aside it’s nice to see fiction that defends an incrementalist approach to changing the world.
Except the book doesn’t stop there. The many side characters, almost all of whom are more lively and engaging than Caitlin, are almost all grappling in one way or another with death. Helen “escaped” her death from old age by somehow hitching a ride on Caitlin’s dragon. Caitlin’s brother must decide whether to stave off death by indulging base passions; another noblewoman tries to escape a terrible fate by entrapping Caitlin in her place; and a woman named Esme, a returning character from The Dragons of Babel, has achieved a kind of immortality by sacrificing her memory and living as a permanent child. Even from this summary, you can guess that the book’s view of these measures is negative. In fact, many of the worst evils in the book are caused by those who are determined to avoid death at any cost. There is an incrementalism in this handling of the apparent evil of death that mirrors the book’s incrementalism in reforming society, since the book’s metaphysics seem to involve karmic reincarnation. Instead of sacrificing your principles to maintain a white-knuckled grip on life, just do the best you can and accept you’ll be reborn in a higher station or, perhaps someday, get the secret knowledge that allows one to escape the cycle of rebirth entirely.
That’s fine for a fantasy novel, but many readers will doubt this watered-down Buddhism is a useful description of the death we all face, so I’m not sure the argument is as effective here. All of the means of avoiding death in the book are morally dubious, but when so many different avenues exist it’s hard to believe they are all immoral unless there’s a divine thumb (in this case, the author’s) on the scale.
Despite such quibbles, the setting, style, and creativity of Iron Dragon’s Mother make it a fun and thought-provoking novel. For those new to the setting, I’d still recommend starting with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. It was an astonishing book when I read it for the first time in the ’90s. I had never seen something that melded folklore and modernity so deftly. Since then, more famous successors like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians have taken modern-inflected fantasy further, and novels like N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season have more forcefully expressed the outrage of the oppressed, but none have done both quite like Swanwick’s original. The Iron Dragon’s Mother is a worthy successor and recommended for anyone who enjoyed the original novel and wants more development of both the setting and the themes.