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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.

Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.

There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.

Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.

Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After  crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.

There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.

Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.

The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces.  Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.

Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.

An excellent series, strongly recommended.

Something, something has got to happen soon, Milena thought. I need something new to do. I’m tired of the plays, I’m tired of the Child Gardens, I’m tired of being me. I’m tired of sitting bolt upright on the edge of my bed all night, alone. I need someone. I need a woman, and there isn’t going to be one. They’ve all been cured. The viruses cure them. Bad Grammar. I love you is Bad Grammer?

Some years ago I bought Geoff Ryman’s book Was, a unique take on BaumsThe Wizard of Oz , in a sale. I never got a chance to read it and eventually sold my copy, along with most of my possessions, the first time I moved to Australia. Now I feel like running to the largest book store I can find in Sydney and hunting it down. I have not been this excited by a writer since I first discovered Samuel R. Delany.

In a brisk introduction titled Advances in Medicine (A Culture of Viruses), Ryman establishes his vision of this future London and the principal character a Czech orphan named Milena Shibush. Cancer was cured via a contagious benevolent virus that rewrote DNA to allow the human body to photosynthesize sugar internally, preventing the triggering of tumour cells metastasizing due to genetic damage. The viruses continued to mutate, becoming intelligent and coding information into each new host, until a hive-mind developed called the Consensus, which directed and guided humanity. Culture and history became transferrable diseases, with newborn infants suddenly becoming infested with the collected works of Shakespeare, annals of past events and languages. Utterly transformed, the skin tone of the human race is now a universal russet purple. Also, the curing of cancer had an unexpected after-effect – no one lives beyond thirty-five.

Got all that? Good. Milena is not like the other children. Her parents are deceased. The virus payload never took as an infant, so she was forced to actually read as she was unable to keep up with the other children. At the age of ten children undergo a process called being ‘Read’, where all their experiences are distilled by Consensus in order to determine what their future professions should be. Milena has never been Read. When she finally received a payload of viruses that took it caused her to become so ill she was deemed unsuitable for the process. After she recovered, it seemed to her as if Consensus had forgotten to harvest her. She was placed as an actress in London. She is different, estranged from the other adolescents and children, more impulsive, imaginative, distrusting of the viruses and due to ‘Bad Grammar’ is attracted only to women.

Milena’s loneliness and lack of interest in the robotic performances of Shakespeare she has to take part in as part of her ‘career’ – every actor recites their lines and paces the stage exactly as Consensus tells them the original performers did, in a perfect recreation of the Elizabethan era – leave her feeling increasingly isolated, until one day she meets the love of her life. One day she hears a voice sing with a richness and understanding superior to any recording. The singer in question is a genetically engineered polar-woman named Rolfa, descended from humans who chose not to join Consensus, but become intelligent polar-bears instead. Unlike the socialist Utopia of the purple-skinned humans, the ‘G.E.’ polar bears mine for ore in the Antarctic and sell it for profit. They are the last capitalists. Rolfa, like Milena, is a freak who enjoys opera and poetry instead of business. Where the ‘squidgy’ girl is paranoid and reserved, the woman who looks like a bear is raucous and inspiring. Their love is not permitted by either Consensus or Rolfa’s Family, forcing them to make a tragic choice. Milena dedicates her short life to orchestrating her lover’s opera based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing book. Ryman’s characters are fascinating creations – the dangerously deluded Thrawn McCartney, Cilla an actress colleague of Milena’s so good she cannot actually tell whether she is self-conscious or acting – contained within an elliptical and time-jumping plot. The intelligent viruses resemble Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes, which he wrote about in The Selfish Gene ten years before The Child Garden was published. This is an exhilarating mixture of science and culture, a novel set in the future that revolves around Dante’s epic poem.

Outstanding.

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