Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

When The Dragons of Babel arrived on my doorstep, I said that I was sure that it would be one of the best fantasy novels of 2007. But I'll have to back off that claim slightly, now that I've read it. The Dragons of Babel is a fine fantasy book, and quite possibly one of the best of the year, but it's clearly a fix-up rather than a novel -- the preexisting stories have been run together and disguised by being arranged into many chapters, but Dragons makes, at best, a very picaresque and episodic novel.

The episodes are generally excellent -- both "King Dragon" and "Lord Weary's Empire" are fabulous novellas, and they each have just as much power as two-and-a-half chapters in the middle of Babel as they did when they stood alone -- but they clearly are episodes, and the plot bounces from one discrete adventure to another without a strong central plot.

Will is a young guy -- I can't say "man," since he's half-human and half-fay -- in a bucolic village somewhere in the hinterlands of Faerie. But his simple life ends when the ongoing war between two distant powers leads to a war-dragon (essentially a living fighter plane) crash-landing in his town's central square. The dragon is half-dead and immobile, but still powerful and malicious enough to take over the town. And when the dragon discovers that it needs a strong lieutenant to enforce its rule, Will's half-blood immunity to cold iron makes him a natural for the job.

Will eventually gets away from the dragon's control -- doing his village a good turn along the way -- but he has to leave town permanently, and a piece of the dragon's consciousness and power is permanently resident in him. On his way to the city of Babel and the destiny he doesn't know he has (and wouldn't particularly have wanted), he finds himself in a refugee camp, with a band of squatters deep beneath the city of Babel, learning the trade of a mildly corrupt city government official high in the spires of Babel, and making a dishonest living as a con man.

Each episode is well-told and compelling, but they are each separate episodes, not stages in a single plotline. Readers who demand a single continuous narrative might be disappointed with The Dragons of Babel, but, then again, so would those who demand that every book have a conventional romance plot. Life is full of disappointments for the inflexible. For the rest of us, here's The Dragons of Babel, a great work of modern fantasy from one of the treasures of American letters.

1 comment:

Child of Albion said...

Your review reminds me of a similar structure in Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers, which also required one to be more flexible than not. If you haven't read it, I recommend it.

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