Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Iron Dragon's Mother by Michael Swanwick

Faerie is a dark mirror. Every vision of faerie, from every writer, is a twist or inversion or direct translation of something that writer wants to explore. Time, aristocracy, cruelty, connection, bargains, mortality, morality.

Michael Swanwick's faerie hews much closer to the "real world" than most writers' visions. Over twenty-five years and three novels, he's returned to an industrialized, aristocratic, deeply corrupt version of our world, ruled by fear and velvet-gloved iron fists and the straitjacket of social structures and expectations. His faerielands are not mapped, but their geography seems to be very close to our own. The people who live there are diverse, made up of the mythic creatures of a hundred lands -- but most of them are wage-slaves, trapped in the bottom rungs of a punishing and constricting society. And there's a core militarism that will be familiar to all Americans -- and many others -- embodied in the central image of the titles of all three novels.

Dragons. Dragons as once-living weapons. Fighter planes as dragons as fighter planes. Transformed into machines that are still dragons, unable to move or act on their own. Inherently cruel and destructive. Accepting the most horrible bondage imaginable for their kind just to have the opportunity to rage and burn and kill, even if that opportunity is tightly bounded and utterly controlled by their half-fae pilots.

Swanwick introduced that dark faerie in 1993's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, about a changeling trapped in that world and caught up in a long plot by one of those nihilistic dragons to destroy it all. He returned a decade and a half later in a series of linked novellas, collected as The Dragons of Babel, about another young person caught up in the schemes of a dragon. And the third book was The Iron Dragon's Mother, from 2019.

It opens in our world. A woman named Helen V. is dying, slowly, in some facility. She was powerful -- some kind of Hollywood producer -- and is still acerbic and cutting and clear-headed, but is now powerless and weak and entirely at the mercy of her distracted, young nurses who understand nothing about her and can't engage with her intellectually. She knows she is dying. She has a plan, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to leap forth at the moment of her death, break off the wheel of rebirth, and find...something else.

Maybe that works. Maybe something else happens. But she ends up in the back of the mind of Caitlin of House Sans Merci, one of the first squadron of female dragon pilots, as Caitlin and the rest return from a flight over the human world, harvesting children's souls for industrial changelings. Caitlin is half-human, as all dragon pilots must be: they have to touch cold iron to fly, and no full-blood fae can do that.

Caitlin's life has gone reasonably well: her mother (well, the wife of her father -- there was clearly a human female somewhere in the mix, but that is deeply obscure for much of the book) is cruel and distant and her father merely distant, which is about as good as it gets for aristocratic fae families. Her older brother Fingolfinrhod is reasonably friendly, and will inherit before long. She has succeeded at the first step in what should be an illustrious and respected career. She is part of a team and accepted.

It all goes to hell soon after she's called home to see her dying father. Her father does die. Something more puzzling happens to her brother. And, soon after her return to the air base, she's arrested on trumped-up but airtight charges. It's clear she's on the fast track to immediate execution, and no protests of innocence -- she is, of course, entirely innocent -- can possibly help.

So she blows it all up and goes on the run. Looking to get away, to find her brother, to prove the case against her is false, to get back what she lost.

For a long time she doesn't realize she can never get it back, even as everyone she meets tells her that, bluntly. She travels across this dark faerie mirror, through something like a crueler, nastier EU, one step ahead of pursuers and usually several steps behind what she eventually learns is a Conspiracy. (With a capital C and a home office and a large clerical staff.)

Helen is in her head the whole time. Usually quiet -- the reader can almost forget Helen is there for chapters at a time. But Caitlin will only make it through with Helen's help, and the end of the story is as much Helen's as it is Caitlin's.

Swanwick's prose is as brilliant and precise as always: he's one of our finest writers, and this series brings out the best in his work. The episodic structure also suits his strengths, as a master of short fiction. Each moment in Caitlin's journey propels her a little farther and makes her understand a little more about the true shape of her world and how she can live in it.

This is fantasy at the top of its register: not a secondary world disconnected from our own, but that direct, immediate mirror. Swanwick has always moved backwards and forwards from SF to Fantasy, bringing the same concerns to both and mixing their tropes to tell his current story. Iron Dragon's Mother is another triumph in that tradition: a novel about death and mortality and inevitability and wisdom and corruption and, in the end, about letting go.

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