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Freedom! Jane thought. She rocked back on her heels and imagined Stilt flapping off clumsily into a bronze-green autumn sky. Her thoughts soared with him, over the walls and razor-wire and into the air, the factory buildings and marshalling yards dwindling below, as he flew higher than the billowing exhaust from the smokestacks, into the deepening sky, higher than Dame Moon herself. And never, oh never, to return!
I have had the good fortune to experience that age-old cliché of ‘escaping into a good book’. It is a rare occurence, but it does happen. To be completely transported away into a world conjured up by an author’s imagination is a delicate and wondrous thing.
Over the course of this challenge I have experienced this only two or three times. Geoff Ryman provided one such diversion, as did David Mitchell. As I write each entry for this blog, I become more eager to feel the sensation of sinking into another imaginary world once more.
The opening pages of Michael Swanwick‘s novel promised just that. Jane Alderberry has been raised in a factory that supplies the Elven kingdom with dragons. She is human, but just as much a slave as the other workers, elves, shapeshifters and other examples of fey kind, owned and controlled by the factory itself. Jane is persuaded to help the roguish Rooster sabotage the factory in an attempt to murder their overseer the disgusting Blugg. The assassination plot fails and its mastermind loses an eye for his troubles, but Jane returns to her bunk with the means to her own escape. A grimoire detailing the making of dragons.
As her knowledge of the workings of these incredible metal sky-destriers grows, she becomes aware of a voice compelling her to the factory yard. There she meets the dragon No. 7332, who enmeshes her with promises of freedom from the suffering of the factory. However, she soon realizes she has exchanged one master for another and the indiscriminate havoc he wrecks on the factory claims the lives of both her enemies and those few friends she had.
What follows is a broadly Dickensian narrative of Jane’s rise through Elven society, a cruel and callous pagan universe that nonetheless is fuelled by industry. The various races of the ‘fey and the weird‘, share in a society based on domination and exploitation. Jane begins her schooling disguised as an ordinary wood-nymph in order to learn how to repair No. 7332, discovers a love of theft and through her scheming wrangles a scholarship to university studying alchemical sciences. With each elevation through society she finds herself trapped in the same narratives, love triangles and bitter emnities. Faces and names reoccur with such frequency that she comes to doubt the reality of her existence. Beneath it all, she knows the dragon is controlling her, moving her forward in a game of cosmic strategy that she cannot comprehend.
Swanwick serves up a delicious gumbo of fantasy and steampunk tropes that revolves around two poles of cosmic nihilism and alchemical transformation. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a perversely mischievous book, unrestrained in scope and possessing a wicked sense of humour. There are touches of Dickens strewn throughout, including a reference to the breaking of a barrel of wine as a sign of the building foment in Paris during A Tale of Two Cities. The naming conventions also resemble Dickens’ whimsical malapropisms, but Swanwick also includes allusions to Welsh mythology to remind us that this is ostensibly a fantasy novel. The scenes of ritualistic sex magic, the mating habits of gargoyles, elves snorting lines of coke and Jane consulting a witch on methods of birth control do add to the categorical confusion.
For it has to be said this is a profoundly twisted vision of fantasy, a weird psychodrama that far outstrips the likes of China Miéville, cleaving perhaps closer to the likes of Samuel R. Delany and M. John Harrison.
To say more would, I fear, only spoil the experience of reading this book for yourselves. Writing this review has been as much a pleasure for me as reading the book that informs it. A revelation, whimsically profound and delightfully twisted. Another roaring success for Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series.
Once upon a time, a middle-aged associate professor called Knight, armoured only by his self-esteem, which was considerable, journeyed into a mountain wilderness to investigate rumours that a dragon was terrorising farmers, small shopkeepers and eco-tourists in the area.
I remember my dad trying to convince me that fantasy and superheroes were things one had to leave behind with childhood. What about the man who invented the telephone, he asked rhetorically. There was a real hero. Your writers of Tarzan and so forth were probably just lowly shoe salesmen who got lucky with selling their daydreams. This was a very dispiriting notion for me as a kid. Now thirty-something’s continue to indulge themselves in childish pursuits and primetime television schedules have been occupied by sf/fantasy extravagances. It seems the daydreamers won, but I suspect we have gone from one extreme to another.
Australian writer Jennifer Rowe’s collection of short ‘adult’, fairy tales straddles the balance between fantasy and reality. Each short tale describes lonely or foolish adults who maybe need a little magic in their lives. In this world stage magicians have actual magical powers that far outstrip sleight of hand trickery and handsome princes struggle with their sexuality.
My pick of the bunch is Curly Locks, a parable about how ignorance is bliss. A young woman, orphaned by a misdirected letter bomb, spends her days working and caring for her mysteriously disabled boyfriend. Then one day an act of kindness witnessed by a powerful mage causes her fortune to improve, although she never really questions it. The Magic Fish features, well, a magic goldfish and unfortunately a very forgetful one at that. Justin and the Troll shows how vitally important it is to listen carefully. Sadly ‘troll bridge’, sounds an awful lot like ‘toll bridge’.
Rowe carries off the conceit of sour adult lives requiring a small electric thrill to put them on the right path quite well. Known as a crime writer, she has written fairy tales for children under pseudonyms, including the popular Deltora Quest series as Emily Rodda. Fairy Tales for Grown Ups strikes a balance between her parallel careers, grim fairy tales with a jaunty sense of whimsy.
For Rowe the story begins after the ‘happily ever after’, when divorce and bitterness have set in. Several of the tales feature divorcees muddling their way through middle age. The stories are even set in the same world and some of the characters introduced to us in the preceding entries in this collection meet in the final short, Angela’s Mandrake. The hero of The Lonely Prince reminded me a little of Herbert, the effete son of the ambitious lord in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. A sensitive romantic maneuvered into a marriage that befits his father’s intentions instead of his own need for a partner. Rowe’s take on the situation is an amusing inversion of the traditional fairy tale, once again introducing a sense of farcical modernity into the proceedings. The Fat Wife has the abandoned first wife character trope meet a gentle, yet sexually rapacious genie, who knows just how to appreciate a woman scorned by a world that favours ‘size 8 models’.
As befits the best fairy tales, each of Rowe’s stories is written in a light and breezy, enjoyable yet also pleasantly forgettable. I mean that as a compliment. All the problems and ailments of these characters are rooted in issues of low self-esteem and the broad theme of the book seems to be that we should believe in ourselves a little more. Maybe allow a little bit of magic into our lives every now and then.
This is a pleasant treat to read on a slow Sunday afternoon.
Annie wasn’t a hero. She was ten years old and had long blonde hair and blue eyes, and her father said she’d make an excellent damsel one day. He had her practicing her screams every morning for an hour and said they were the best he had ever heard. But now her father was missing and there were no heroes available, and her mother wouldn’t stop crying.
For my final review of Children’s Literature Week I have chosen S.E. Connolly’s debut, Damsel published by Mercier Press. It is a short and sweet fantasy tale about a girl setting out to rescue her father from an evil wizard. If ever you found yourself reading Harry Potter and wondering why Hermione Granger wasn’t the main character instead the bumbling eponymous wizard messiah, I reckon this is a neat corrective. More than that though, it’s an excellent first novel from a young Irish writer, whom I hope to see more from some day.
Angelina Cerestina Tiffenemina Brave (aka Annie) is a young damsel-in-training who’s famous father was once a mighty hero. Having promised his wife that his adventuring days were behind him, he focused on raising a family and writing his guide to becoming a hero, so that other young men could learn from his experiences. Then one day he heard the wizard Greenlott was loose on a rampage and set off to defeat the evil mage. When he did not return, a messenger arrives at the Brave household with the news that Tristan Brave had been captured.
As Greenlott has already defeated most of the heroes in the land, Annie takes it upon herself to vanquish him. She sets off accompanied only by her ‘fiery’ pony Chestnut and her dog, Squire, as well as an incomplete copy of her father’s guide to being a hero. Following the advice in the book she manages to evade threats including under-bridge trolls, giant spiders and dragons. She also learns the dangers of kissing a frog. Along her travels she befriends Roger, who claims to be a prince and while he does carry a sword, is not altogether reliable. Can a girl be a hero? Or has Annie nothing better to look forward to than screaming for rescue and looking pretty?
In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s sister is a friend of mine. She was pleasantly surprised when I reported back to her how much I enjoyed reading Damsel, assuming that I was just being kind. If anything, I found it to be a fun and inventive tale that pokes fun at the standards of romantic fantasy. Annie does not mind being a damsel as such, but she would prefer to have a choice as to whether she could be a hero. Throughout the book she is frustrated with how the folk they encounter assume Roger is the real hero, despite his occasional cowardice and bookish manner. The author cannily does not allow the dynamic between them to be too one-sided. Sometimes Roger helps Annie escape from danger, but when you need someone to risk life and giant spider-goo, she’s your girl.
I will happily continue to sing this book’s praises and have already foisted copy onto my in-laws. It is a sweet and rewarding tale, with a neat wry tone and some beautiful illustrations from Axel Rator.
This being the last entry in Children’s Literature Week, I would just like to say I’ve had a great time reviewing these books and I hope you enjoyed reading ‘em. Just because a writer writes for children, it doesn’t mean the books should be silly and unimportant. Often the most important things we learn during our lives we first discover as children. The books we read should be equally as enriching and inspiring. Cheers folks.