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Review: Dragons of Babel (Michael Swanwick)

January 10, 2012

When I blindly grabbed The Dragons of Babel for my to-read pile mountain, I wasn’t really sure what I’d be getting into. I sort of dimly recognized the name Michael Swanwick, but I couldn’t have told you anything about him or his work. But hey: dragons. And Babel.

Come to find out that the “dragons” in question are giant iron war machines equipped with pilots and bombs, and the city of Babel is the capitol of a fairy realm with an absentee king and a professional, time-traveling police force. Yeah: keep reading.

Title: The Dragons of Babel

Author: Michael Swanwick

Read this: if you’re in the mood for a genre bender

The short version: a dark, slick, and savvy tour of one of the most fascinating Faerie kingdoms I’ve ever seen.

This novel is slick. I’ve seen people complaining at Goodreads and elsewhere that it feels like several interlinked short stories rather than one epic novel, and that’s a little true. But the narration is so deftly handled that I barely noticed. Young rural villager Will starts off as the unwilling lieutenant of said iron dragon war-machine, who crash lands in the town square and makes the place into his personal fiefdom. Before long, we’re following Will into a stint as a con man, an underground war below our hybrid magical-industrial Babel, and a heady romance with a feisty high-elven gryphon rider.

Somewhere in the middle of the first fantastic plot twist, I looked up and thought to wonder how I had gotten from Point A to Point B. But as I read, I barely noticed the plot lines slipping through my readerly fingers–which, for me, is a hallmark of masterful storytelling.

Speaking of plot twists, there are several, and they’re all very well done. Swanwick has a rare gift, one I’ve come to prize increasingly as the landscape of original ideas seems to shrink before our pop-culture-saturated eyes. He takes tropes you’ve seen dozens of times, foreshadows them so you see them coming, and then executes them, awesomely, in a fresh and unerringly sharp style. On the off chance you end up reading this book because of something little old me said, I don’t want to spoil them for you… Ha! The last one in particular is a perfect example of that genre-savvy knack I’m talking about.

Swanwick’s Babel is one of the most culturally diverse fantasy cities I’ve encountered, which fits with its industrial-age feel. I’ve been reading fantasy long enough that I don’t bat an eyelash at anything from elves to sylphs and brownies, but this book had me looking up fey creatures like haints and russalka. This is a city in which you find gryphons sharing space in a sentence with LSD. It’s gritty in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. And that, too, is refreshing.

With my bookshelves already crammed beyond capacity with sweepingly epic 5-10-book series, it’s wonderful to encounter a stand-alone that holds its own. This one does. There’s another work set in the same world, but it appears to be out of print–so drop me a line if you know where I can get a copy.

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