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The Dragons of Babel
Michael Swanwick
Tor, 320 pages

The Dragons of Babel
Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick's third novel, Stations of the Tide, won a Nebula Award for best novel of 1991. It was also a nominee for the Hugo Award, as was his novella, Griffin's Egg, and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in Britain. His first two published stories, The Feast of Saint Janis and Ginungagap were both Nebula Award finalists in 1980. Mummer Kiss was a Nebula Award nominee for 1981. The Man Who Met Picasso was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award in 1982.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Dog Said Bow-Wow
SF Site Review: The Dog Said Bow-Wow
SF Site Review: Cigar-Box Faust, and Other Miniatures
SF Site Review: Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures
SF Site Review: Tales of Old Earth
SF Site Review: The Iron Dragon's Daughter
SF Site Review: Jack Faust

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dustin Kenall

"I desired dragons," Tolkien reflected, "with a profound desire." Fantasy has desired dragons too -- if not always as profoundly as one would like, then at least profusely. E.R. Eddison invoked the beast as a symbol of eternal return in The Worm Ouroboros. John Gardner, delving into similar mythological mines in Grendel, unearthed a creature existing outside of time, an intelligence spearing the past, present, and future on the tip of its claw, an impressive, impassive Nietzschean herald of the heat-death of the universe. Most other authors, however, fashion serpents only scale deep, imagining them as gigantic sand worms (Frank Herbert), fire lizards (Anne McCaffrey), or leonine raptors (Dragonheart). Among contemporary writers, Robin Hobb is one of the few to express a deeper interest in the metaphysical properties of dragons -- using sea-spawned serpents that metamorphose (or face extinction) through an intricate environmental process as a metaphor for the precariousness of modern ecologies.

Michael Swanwick's dragons, however, are one of a kind. Modern monstrosities, they are part jet and part artificial intelligence, baleful spirits of power and malice bent on destruction. And, like Gravity's Rainbow's rockets, they come screaming across the sky in the first line of The Dragons of Babel, "their jets so thunderous they shook the ground like the great throbbing heartbeat of the world." Will la Fey, an orphan of uncertain parentage, runs outside to watch them pass overhead and witnesses one fall in combat to a basilisk, in a scene (like many others) rendered with the vividness, poignancy and precision of a prose poem. Two days later, "a crippled dragon crawled out of the Old Forest and into the village. Slowly he pulled himself into the center square. Then he collapsed. He was wingless and there were gaping holes in his fuselage, but still the stench of power clung to him, and a miasma of hatred. . . . [I]t was built of cold, black iron. . . with jagged stumps of metal where its wings had been and ruptured plates here and there along its flanks. But even half-destroyed, the dragon was a beautiful creature."

This awful power and irresistible beauty is what seduces Will into becoming the dragon's lieutenant. Swanwick conveys Will's initial excitement with dark humor. It "gifted everything with an impossible vividness. The green moss on the skulls stuck in the crotches of forked sticks. . . the salamanders languidly copulating in the coals of the smithy forge, even the stillness of the carnivorous plants in his auntie's garden as they waited for an unwary toad to hop within striking distance -- such homely sights were transformed." But this "sleek being with the beauty of an animal and the perfection of a machine" will not consent to a mere partnership; it wants total control. In the maw of its cockpit, Will is drugged and raped as "[s]omething cold and wet and slippery slid into [his] mind. A coppery foulness filled his mouth. A repulsive stench rose up in his nostrils. . . . Coil upon coil, it thrust its way inside him."

Will spends the remainder of the novel trying to live with the dragon inside him, even after its physical body is reduced to ash. His village exiles him for crimes committed during his enthrallment. His initial adventures are aimless excursions, peripatetic scenes of arch didacticism that recall Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. He rescues a child older than she seems, an eternal Alice as it were. Fleeing the escalation of war between the East and the West, he enters a refugee camp and encounters the apogee of suffering alongside the nadir of goodness, from which he finds a purpose: to bring the war to Babel, the dragons' home.

Swanwick's unique setting -- a contemporary faerie world in which post-industrial technology and ancient magic blend seamlessly -- has garnered many labels: elf punk, cyber-steampunk, slipstream, the original New Weird. In fact, Swanwick's world is a meticulously researched compendium of mythological figures, a lovingly compiled faerie grimoire of the globe. He paints his characters -- generic elves and dwarves but also wodewose, fossegrim, tokoloshe, haint, tylwyth teg, russalka, albino giants "translucent-skinned and weak as tapioca pudding" and a host of other Otherworldly ethnics -- with Pre-Raphaelite attention to historical detail and moral seriousness. Harkening back to the macabre plotting and grim tone of Hans Christian Anderson and Christina Rosetti, his book is distinctly fantasy for adults. His mellifluous prose style echoes Lord Dunsany, while his story structuring resembles the bildungsromans of James Branch Cabell and David Lindsay more than the epic quests of Tolkien. Immersed in a pop-saturated culture of designer brands straight out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel (Givenchy, Zippo, Marlboro, McDonalds and other epiphenomena of late-consumer capitalism all make an appearance), his world is sui generis and cannot truly be categorized, only comprehended.

Nominally a sequel to the early-90s' classic The Iron Dragon's Daughter, the book revisits the same world with new characters and updated themes. Where its predecessor tackled issues of child labor and feminism, The Dragons of Babel meditates on the causes and costs of terrorism, unlimited executive power, and globalization as seen in the microcosm of the multi-cultured metropolis. Swanwick's Babel, a congeries of ethnic fay from across the continents teeming in close quarters in a darkly dreaming analogue of New York City, is a consummate triumph. Exemplary touches are his haints, oppressed spirits of Southern U.S. heritage, who inhabit his Harlem, a nod to Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, and his stone lion, who patiently guards the city's library (reading over the shoulder of any nearby bibliophile) while waiting for his mates' labors to shake the Tower of Babel to ruins. The tour is brief (a mere 320 pages) but packed -- the sights and sounds of Babel and the novel recursively folding in on themselves, as rich and dense and intricate as the parapets of Gormenghast.

In its capacious incorporation of other great works, its assured and dexterous prose, its evocative images, its timely thematic concerns, and its satisfying and original conclusion, The Dragons of Babel is an unqualified masterpiece representing the pinnacle of modern fantasy. Simply put, it is great fantasy as great literature. Future writers would do well to heed closely to Swanwick's considered inversions of the tropes of the genre, which remind us that "Magic in the imagination is a wondrous thing, but magic in practice is terrible beyond imagining."

Copyright © 2008 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog,, is always wide awake, though.

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