Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: The Dragons of Babel

The Dragons of Babel is the "sequel" to Michael Swanwick's 1993 fantasy, The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The Iron Dragon's Daughter was a heart-breaker --- the opening was gorgeous, beautiful, and when I read that story in Asimov's Science Fiction I knew I would buy the novel when it came out. It depicted what I will called Industrial Fantasy --- a world in which magic works, but all the trappings of the Industrial Revolution are in place --- trains, air-power, and Dickensian sweat-shops. While that novel had fresh ideas on every page, it completely sagged past the first third and I thought it lost its way, despite the brilliance of Swanwick's ideas.

This re-tread of the same world some 15 years later obviously takes place in the same universe, but uses completely different characters. This time, however, I feel that Swanwick has done justice to his ideas. The story takes off so many fantasy tropes and stories that it would be tough to enumerate them all. There's the farmboy who goes to the city and gets taken in by a con-man story. There's the victim of an oppressive dragon who is made into the oppressor of his village story. There's even an "oh, and it was all a dream" story. There's a tragic love story. But they all happen to one character, a boy named Will, who at the start of the story sees a war hit home as the remains of an Iron Dragon (a magic-powered sentient fighter-bomber analogue) lands near his village.

Unlike his previous attempt at telling a story in this milieu, however, the action starts and it then never stops, not for the 300 pages it takes to tell this story. And what a marvelous 300 pages it is! By the end of it all, you've explored a city and several fantasy stories (all twisted in the usual Swanwick fashion), and learned a lot about this world the characters live in. It's a wild, almost psychedelic romp through fantasy-land and whenever I stop I had to pause to take a breath, so it took quite some time to finish this book (that and I had to read it on paper, with no Kindle edition).

All in all, a worth-while read --- easily one of the best novels I've read this year.
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