The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

(2008-01-28)

 

Tor hardcover 2008

Will le Fey is a teenage orphan of uncertain parentage. He lives in a rural village not far from the battle lines of a war waged between two great nations. One day, a dragon crashes into the village, and too injured to fly away, installs itself as king of the village. The dragon picks Will as its unwilling lieutenant, giving him this dubious honor because Will has a secret that makes him unlike anyone else in town: he has mortal blood in him.

Fans of The Once and Future King, Star Wars, The Inheritance Cycle and countless other similar tales will immediately recognize the popular fantasy bildungsroman trope Michael Swanwick is employing in his latest novel, The Dragons of Babel. We all have some idea of what will happen to the orphan farm boy, so it's up to Swanwick to make the journey along this well-worn path an enjoyable ride, endowing familiar sights with novel insights. Fans of Swanwick will find that this novel is set in the same universe as The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1997), a place where the world of fζrie and what readers call the "real" world overlap, where dragons are jet-like cyborgs, haints drive BMWs, and creatures of myth from all over the world live side by side in Babel, a very modern and cosmopolitan metropolis drawing from such models as the legendary city in the Book of Genesis, Gormenghast, Discworld's Ankh-Morpork, and present-day New York City. Like Ankh-Morpork, Babel also just so happens to have an absent monarch.

The Dragons of Babel's first half, comprised of Will's exile from his village, his journey to Babel, and his first months there, is a rambling picaresque that seems disjointed at first glance but gains retrospective cohesiveness as one approaches the novel's end. Will's early adventures include a showdown with the village dragon that prompts his exile, encounters with military patrols, a stay at an internment camp, and pursuit by political police while on board a train to Babel. He is joined by two companions along the way: a magically-touched child named Esme and a donkey-eared confidence man named Nat (among other aliases). Following a subterranean interlude that in my opinion would have worked better as a stand-alone tale (which it was, in an issue of Asimov's), Will and Nat come up with a con that could set them up for life, if it doesn't shake Babel to its very foundations – and maybe even if it does. In this final episode, the significance to the greater narrative of all of the preceding episodes becomes manifest, like the variegated pieces of a mosaic which only coalesce into a comprehensive image when one views them from the proper distance.

The Dragons of Babel packs a lot into a small space, providing more substance in 320 pages than many novels twice its size, and the last 100 pages move at a breathless pace. The world of Babel is fully realized although its surface is just barely scratched, with potential for many more tales should Swanwick choose to write them. The tale that he has written here is a seamless combination of fantasy and science fiction, the barely-remembered past and the all-too-documented present, with brand names and pop culture iconography co-existing naturally with creatures of folklore. It is also a varied collection of literary modes and themes. In addition to the coming of age narrative, The Dragons of Babel includes political intrigue, a whodunit, something akin to a prolonged dream sequence, a romance, and a unexpectedly touching father and son story. All the while, Swanwick walks the fine line between subtle humor and out-and-out farce, for although the sharp dialogue and often preposterous situations provide plenty of chuckles, this is not a light novel: The Dragons of Babel abounds with lurid descriptions of a city that attracts people from all over the world with its cosmopolitan liberalness, sensuality and opulence, only to chew up and spit out – or just swallow – all but the canniest individuals, as well as graphic depictions of the horrors of war (including one image that this New Yorker found particularly unsettling), not to mention the average, everyday horrors of life.

Although the city of Babel is a central character in this story, The Dragons of Babel remains at its core a tale of Will coming to grips with his past, present and future – whatever it may be – and in so doing, accepting those things in life that cannot be changed while being empowered by the recognition that there are some things that can be changed. This is by no means just another orphan farm boy story. Rather, Swanwick plays with the conventions of the tradition to simultaneously satisfy and confound the reader's expectations, making for a delightful read even when one knows how it will end – or at least when one thinks one knows how it will end. Not all destinies need be (nor should be) fulfilled, or at least fulfilled in ways everyone expects. The Dragons of Babel serves as a reminder that there is limitless potential in even the most covered of conventions and the most destined of farm boys.


© 2008 Arthur Bangs

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