|Submitted by Archren |
(May 17, 2006)
You could consider this book to be Swanwick’s answer to your typical modern Young Adult Fantasy. After all, it follows one character, a young girl Jane, from the age of roughly 12 to adulthood. She is a changeling human in a fantasy world: the elves are the (incredibly snooty) upper class, but there are also trolls, dwarves and assorted other fey. She is initially trapped in a work factory (many echoes of Dickens), escapes, goes to school, goes to University, has relationships and discovers things about herself. There are boyfriends and girlfriends and a relationship with the incredibly powerful dragon of the title.
Now take every single one of those elements and make it dark and twisted, ala the New Weird style of fantasy. In the tone and trappings, this book puts one in mind of Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station” or “The Scar,” especially in the graphically twisted sexual and dark experiences of the protagonist. In this fantasy universe there is a Goddess in charge of the Universe, but it’s no feminist paradise. The best scientists (here alchemists) are generally female, but they have to exploit their own sexuality ruthlessly to operate their experiments. All this is very graphic, so if explicit descriptions of non-vanilla sexuality disturb you, avoid this book.
Jane herself is possibly one of the best anti-heroes I’ve ever read. I’m not usually a fan of non-good, non-rational heroes, but Swanwick guides us through her life in such a way that it is possible not to even realize how far removed she is from heroism until very late in the book. As a minor example, she is a thief. Well, that’s OK, lots of gamin heroes have had to resort to thievery. She does it partly to survive, but even more because she’s good at it and because she likes it. She doesn’t stop when her circumstances improve, either.
This isn’t a book I’d say I enjoyed. It was dark and disturbing and I was glad to see the end of it. However, it is a very well-written book that has a lot of things to say about genre conventions and also about some political idealist nonsense. The biggest flaw of the entire thing is actually the ending; in the end everything takes a sudden and surreal left-turn and things work out OK. After reading so many pages of dark and depressing railing against an unkind and unjust universe, it was confusing and out of place. That’s just the last few pages, though. If you have a strong stomach and a mood where you’re fine with not being uplifted, try this book and see where it takes you.