The Iron Dragon’s Daughter
Reading this book is like having a nightmarish dream — one of those ones where you’re really creeped out and disturbed, but you kind of don’t want to wake up because you know it’s a dream and you want to find out how it’s going to turn out. This story of young Jane, a foundling human child being raised in a very unconventional faerie realm, is compelling — page-turning, honestly — yet at the same time deeply dark and disturbing, set in a universe so twisted as to feel truly dreamlike.
The book’s plot is essentially cyclical, episodic and therefore somewhat disorienting, and follows Jane from her childhood through her high school years and into college. The world in which she exists is terrifying — an uncanny, grimy, dismal world characterized by a culture that is sadistic, heartless, and entirely amoral. This otherworldly place is populated by beings vaguely recognizable as fantasy standards twisted into something new and frightful. The best word to describe the world which Swanwick brings to life here — and yes, he masterfully brings it to fascinating, terrifying life! — is “grotesque”. Everything here is warped and slanted and twisted, disturbing in its nightmarish similarity to reality. Even the sadistic and amoral culture of the persons who inhabit this world — with all their nihilism, sexual perversion, and obsession with the ugly — bears terrifying similarity to the most godless elements of our own modern culture. Ritual death is exalted into a celebrity event, a cultural thrill. Sex is devoid of meaning or purpose, and when it is accompanied by even any emotional commitment, it leads only to heartbreak. Jane is a character entirely without a moral compass, wandering through life aiming simply to survive and willing to do anything in order to do so. She cries out for meaning, for purpose behind her suffering, yet her world offers her only further horrors and meaningless pain.
I confess I almost didn’t write a review about this book because I was kind of embarrassed to admit that I actually read it through to the end. But honestly, the writing was so amazing that I could hardly put it down, even though as the book went on I was more and more disturbed by the grotesque setting which Swanwick was masterfully developing….and I had no doubt that he was purposefully instilling these feelings of revulsion and fascination in the reader. Plus, I just wanted to find out how it turned out. As Jane wrestled with the meaninglessness of her life, trying to figure out why existence was so miserable and why anything beautiful or good was immediately snuffed out, I wondered whether she would ever discover any purpose, any spark of hope or sense of meaning, even an inkling of right and wrong. But she didn’t. Or, well, I’d rate the conclusion at about 1% hope, 99% nihilism. Even though the author obviously recognizes the horror that is life viewed through the nihilist’s lens, he seems unable to posit any meaningful alternative.
Content warning: Make no mistake. The sex is not only meaningless and amoral. It’s graphic. Explicit. And constant (at least in the second half). The bad language is very strong and very pervasive. So is the drug and alcohol abuse. And violence (much of it with a sadistic tinge) is also pretty constant. Yeah. You get the idea.