Posted by: Mish | July 8, 2010

the Iron Dragon’s Daughter

I first heard about Michael Swanwick during last year’s WorldCon when the Iron Dragon’s Daughter was suggested by speculative fiction “pros”. A couple days later I mentioned it to a friend not knowing it’s one of his favourites. I suddenly had the hardcover in hand and if he didn’t need it back the book would probably still be waiting to be read. I read the Iron Dragon’s Daughter in May and returned it a couple weekends ago while saying I understand why he reads it fairly frequently, wants it during his year-long sabbatical, and I need to get my own copy.

In the Dickens-like techno-fantasy, a young human changeling plans to escape her life of servitude. Before flying from the dragon factory Jane needs to find certain items and master her abilities. Jane then feels her way through life’s ups and downs in a world that is as cold and hard as an iron dragon.

Logarithmic Spiral Shell

Logarithmic Spiral Shell

“There is a logic to the shapes of lives and relationships, and that logic is embedded in the stuff of existence. The lover does not awake one morning convinced he would rather be an engineer. The CEO does not surrender wealth. Or if he does, he will find it easier to give up everything, find a cave in the mountains and become a philosopher than to simply downscale his life-style. You see? We are all of us living stories that on some deep level give us satisfaction. If we are unhappy with our stories, that is not enough to free us away from them. We must find other stories that flow naturally from those we have been living” (Grammar is the queen of sciences, pg 131).

That saying about how it’s the journey that counts comes to mind. The ending was completely unexpected, or maybe I had a vague idea but was too caught up in the twists and turns to give it much thought. The first part of the story goes from A to B while the second part zig-zags and cross-cuts. Some may be turned off by the disjointed configuration but it works. Like Jane, the reader is kept off balance and unsure of what’s going to happen next.

Swanwick crafted a unique fairy tale with a colorful cast of elves, dwarves, and other fantasy regulars. In some ways they’re archetypal, but in others they aren’t. I didn’t find it annoying because again, it works. The tiny ant-like creatures were fascinating, in part because of their community but more so because of their role in the story. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a far cry from the “happily ever after” stories and so is refreshingly reminiscent of the Grimm brothers. The vivid imagery of darker subjects also brings to mind Catherynne Valente.

A central image is the möbius strip, which like the sought after Spiral Castle “folds in upon itself. This recursive complexity extends through at least thirteen dimensions”. Summarizing the main theme, one of Jane’s professors says:

M.C. Escher's Mobius II

M.C. Escher's Mobius II

“The world may be perceived in three states, which states may often seem to be a cross-purposes with each other…That which a child sees, in which bread is bread and wine is wine. The second state is consensus reality, that state of conventions by which we agree that bread is a meal and wine is camaraderie. The third is the examined state, that with which our colleagues in the Schools of Sorcery deal, the interplay of forces which they hold to be the ultimate reality. Yet let us ask ourselves, what lies beyond them all? What is the true state of what we might call hyperreality?” (246)

Similarly, there’s more to Swanwick’s fairy tale than meets the eye. A layer will be peeled back and something new revealed with each read. I needfully want my own copy so I can dissect it at my leisure without having to give it back.

The sci-fi/urban fantasy is grim, gripping, and I couldn’t put it down so read its 424 pages in 4 days, also wrapping up my reading for the Sci-fi Challenge. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter may be my first book by Swanwick, but it won’t be the last. It’s one of my best reads so far this year, but isn’t for everyone. I highly recommend it for those who like adult fairy tales and don’t mind seemingly disjointed storytelling, but feel a word of caution is in order for those who don’t like sexual activity in books. There’s not a lot nor is it gratuitous, but it is present here and there.

I’m looking forward to reading Swanwick’s “Five British Dinosaurs” in Year’s Best Fantasy 3 from Eos Books. If you’ve read the Iron Dragon’s Daughter or anything else by Swanwick what did you think? If you’re participating in the Sci-fi Challenge, how’s it going?



  1. What a fantastic review. You have given me a good sense of what this book is like, and I do believe it is one that I would like. I have added to list,and hopefully it will not take me a day and forever to get to it.

    I really liked the quote you used from Grammar is the Queen of Science… a great passage, most especially this part… “We are all of us living stories that on some deep level give us satisfaction. If we are unhappy with our stories, that is not enough to free us away from them. We must find other stories that flow naturally from those we have been living.”

  2. Thank you. I hope you like the book, whenever you finally get around to it. That quote resonates on so many levels.

  3. Great review, Mish. Unhappily, having been thoroughly converted, I suspect that this may be a book which is hard to lay one’s hands on. Good luck with your quest!

    How fortuitous to be able to include an Escher lithogram. I love when complex physical constructs can be tied into book reviews. Very satisfying. Also intrigued by the quote which refers to the living of stories. This is a predominant theme of Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy.

  4. Thank you. I love Escher’s stuff and the ants were the icing on the cake for this review.

    Hmm…the Road and the Border trilogy…Noted.

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