The Iron Dragon’s Mother by Michael Swanwick
It’s been eleven years since I read Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a novel that, while recognizing Swanwick’s brilliance, I did not enjoy. Some phrases from my review include “random, chaotic, and senseless,” “weird, disjointed, obtuse, inaccessibly bizarre,” and “chaotic nihilism.” But mostly I despised the protagonist, Jane, who was “a remorseless foul-mouthed thief, drug-user, slut, and murderer.”
So, at first I expected not to enjoy The Iron Dragon’s Mother (2019), which is set in the same universe, but when I learned that it’s a stand-alone story, has different characters (no Jane!), and is a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, I decided to give it a try. This novel is similarly weird, random, disjointed, and obtuse, but because the characters are so much more appealing, I actually liked The Iron Dragon’s Mother.
Caitlin, a half-human faerie, is one of the newest pilots for the force of sentient mechanical dragons that raid and steal human souls. When she is framed for the murder of her half-brother, the new head of the powerful House Sans Merci, she is forced to commit another crime and to flee the new life that she was just starting to enjoy. To clear her name and regain her position on the dragon force, she will need to find her brother and unravel the conspiracy that’s behind all of her bad luck.
Caitlin gets some assistance from an unexpected and unusual source. It’s the consciousness of Helen, a wise but sarcastic elderly human woman who, with her final breath, made a last-ditch effort to save herself from death. With Helen riding along inside her head, Caitlin just might be able to accomplish her goals, if Helen doesn’t drive her crazy first.
Fans of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter will be pleased to know that all of the surreal creativity you loved in that novel is also present in The Iron Dragon’s Mother. As just a few examples, we meet a sentient train that’s about to give birth, we see slices of spider being served for dinner (Caitlin’s mother loves the eyes), we meet a sand giant couple who lose their memories every time they bury themselves to hide from a war and then wake up to fall in love with each other all over again, and we see a goddess who appears as a Singer sewing machine.
My favorite example is probably the hallway leading to Caitlin’s father’s office. It’s lined with the facades of buildings from sunken cities that have been stitched together. Here is Caitlin and her half-brother, Fingolfinrhod, walking to their father’s office:
As a girl, Caitlin had been fascinated by the windows of the houses, through whose lace curtains or oiled-paper blinds could sometimes be glimpsed shadowy figures about their cryptic otherworldly businesses. Fingolfinrhod, by contrast, never failed to try all the doors, apparently convinced that someday he would find one unlocked and so make an escape.
Readers who didn’t like Jane, the changeling protagonist of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, will be happy to learn that Caitlin is far more endearing. She’s still a half-fae product of the abusive and brutal world she grew up in, but at least she’s a character we can root for, especially when she’s carrying Helen, a snarky but smart old lady, inside her head. Other great characters are a brilliant attorney who has memorized the thousands of books he has in his office, a trickster named Raven who always shows up at just the right time, and a little girl who can jimmy locks and hack computers (this is Esme from The Dragons of Babel, the second book in this “trilogy”).
Fans of Swanwick, and anyone who prefers a darker version of faerie, will want to read The Iron Dragon’s Mother.
The audio version, produced by Brilliance Audio, is narrated by Christina Traister, an actor, professor, and fight choreographer. She gave a fabulous performance.
I’m glad this one worked out better for you! Sometimes a different POV is all you need!
Really, really liked this one. I put it on my Hugo ballot
I also despised The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, for much the same reasons as you, and have never read anything by Swanwick since. Don’t know if this sounds quite different enough for me to try it, but it’s good to know that it isn’t just more of the same.
Hi Mike! Chaotic and surreal seems be Swanwick’s thing. I enjoyed Stations of the Tide and Bones of the Earth.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me that people wouldn’t like Jane. I think she’s one of my favourite fantasy protagonists (and Melanchthon another of my favourite characters). Without them and their relationship as the backbone of the story, Iron Dragon’s Daughter would have just collapsed into random weirdness. I gave up on Dragons of Babel, so it’s possible Swanwick just “fluked” IDD as far as my response went. I’ll look into this one, but cautiously.