Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Review: The Iron Dragon's Mother, by Michael Swanwick

The Iron Dragon's Mother, by Michael Swanwick

a review by Rich Horton

This is Michael Swanwick's third novel set in this particular world, an industrialized version of Faerie. The first was The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993), which, Swanwick has said (to the book group I'm in for one!) was not intended to have any follow-ons. But when asked for a dragon story for an anthology, he ended up with an idea for another story set in the world of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, "King Dragon" (in The Dragon Quintet), which became the seed for the novel The Dragons of Babel (2008). And last year, The Iron Dragon's Mother appeared. I should note, first, that while I've read a novella extracted from The Iron Dragon's Daughter, I have not yet read that book. I did read, and loved, The Dragons of Babel. All three novels are complete in themselves -- apparently a character or two from each book also shows up in another of them, but the action of each is entirely comprehensible without knowing the others.

I considered outlining the plot of this novel briefly, and quickly realized how unsatisfactory that would be. There is a plot, mind you, a well-constructed plot, with plenty of incident and adventure, essentially concerning a young woman, half-human, half-elven, who is railroaded out of her job, as a dragon pilot, at the same time her father dies and her brother, his heir, runs away. Her goal is to find her brother and prove her innocence. All this drives the action, but what drives the novel is character and language and story. 

Characters? Caitlin, of course, the half-breed daughter of the House Sans Merci who thought she was a faithful and accomplished member of the Air Force until she was betrayed. Helen V., the human woman who at the moment of her death jumps from our world to Caitlin's mind. Fingolfinrhod, Caitlin's feckless but loyal brother. Fata Narcisse, surgeon to the Lord of the Rails, charged to keep the living trains in action. Esme, the lucky girl who attaches herself to Caitlin, who is older than anyone else. Edderkopp, the spidery lawyer. Raven, who becomes Caitlin's not fully trustworthy friend. 

(Note -- there's no lover in this mix. Caitlin's virginity is an important aspect -- for reasons that don't really match traditional reasons. And, yes, this book pretty easily aces the Bechdel test.)

Language? One of the tricks of fantasy is to balance the expectations of matching your language to the fantastical milieu with the expectations of contemporary readers (i.e. prose in a register they are familiar with.) (See Ursula K. Le Guin's famous essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie".) Swanwick here master both registers -- when an invocation of High Fantasie is required, it's there. But more often he is undermining such invocations with comic -- indeed vulgar -- descriptions. And this can be very funny, but better than that, it rings true.

Story? The novel is interlarded with explicit stories, of recent history and distant history, of the childhoods of the characters, of people explaining themselves ... some of these are lies, and all them are true. Of course, one of the main characters (Helen V.) is by profession a story-teller -- and perhaps she's not quite sure she's ever escaped being in a story. A story that must end. And, in a way, this story is about making a version (a distorted version?) of our world play a part in pure story, pure fantasy.

I don't think I've come close to doing this book justice. But I can say that I loved reading it, and that it deserves as wide a readership as it can get. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Great Baseball Game

[A Facebook post I made that I confess I'm pretty proud of.]

We are reminded so often by 2020 of the dark things in our world -- the political situation, newly resurgent COVID-19 (which is rampaging through my extended family now), weather, and of course such always-with-us threats as cancer, which has struck both sides of my family just recently. None of these things are gone.

So it is good to be reminded of what is wonderful about this life. In great things -- a trip yesterday to visit our granddaughter, who only offered further proof that she is the cutest granddaughter of all time, and who is old enough now to show that fascination with everything she can see that is so adorable. Alas, no pictures, we're trying to keep her social media profile minimal, but trust me on the cuteness!

And then there's sports. I know lots of folks aren't sports fans, and that's cool. But I am, and my main CFB team (Clemson) won, and my local team (Missouri) also won, convincingly. But that's just stuff. That's cool, but it's not special.

Last night's baseball game was special. There is a lot of stuff people complain about in baseball these days, myself among the complainers. The games are too long. They are too focussed on the so-called "Three True Outcomes" (walk, strikeout, home run.) Etc. Etc. But -- sometimes the game can be sublime. For me, the greatest World Series game of all time will probably always be Game 6 of the 2011 series, and I can't say last night's game was better than that. But it's definitely in the conversation to be next on the list.

This is a series in which I don't have a strong rooting interest. I like the Rays because of their scrappy image, and their brilliant front office, and players with local connections like Pete Fairbanks, who went to High School with my son, or Josh Fleming, who went to Webster University, or Randy Arozarena, who came up in the Cards' system and would still be a Card if the Cards' front office could evaluate hitters. But I like the Dodgers because they have been the best team in baseball, overall, for nearly a decade, but have been heartbroken in the playoffs (often at the hand of the Cardinals, and once at the hand of the Astros while they were cheating), and because Clayton Kershaw is so great, and because they too have done a great job of identifying talent other teams have missed, like Justin Turner and Max Muncy.

We got home from my daughter's at about 8:30 last night. I think the score was 2-0, Dodgers. Essentially from the point we turned the game on, the two teams scored in every half-inning, with some power but mostly with relentless at-bats, and good baserunning, and some luck. The Dodgers, who have established a reputation as a great 2 out team, scored all 7 of their runs with two outs. The teams were both playing essentially "bullpen" games, running a different pitcher out there pretty much every inning.

There were great individual performances. Corey Seager and Justin Turner, of the Dodgers, each went 4 for 5 with a home run. The incredible Randy Arozarena went 3 for 4 with a home run and a critical walk and a glorious mess of a dash for the winning run.

And that last play! The Dodgers had their great closer Kenley Jansen on the mound. He gave up a hit (a broken bat single, not Jansen's fault, instead a gift of the baseball gods) and a walk on a great Arozarena at-bat, and got 2 outs, and was facing probably the Rays' 28th player, Brett Phillips, a late acquisition from the Kansas City Royals, an extra outfielder who hit under .200. Phillips took the first three pitches, all out of the strike zone, but the last two close enough that the umpire gave Jansen the calls. So, a 1-2 count, one of the best closers of our era on the mound, a no-account Mendoza-line hitter ... and he punched the next pitch into right center for a single. Not a rocket, just a ball he hit in the right place. It was clear from the start that Kevin Kiermaier would score easily from second, but centerfielder Chris Taylor charged the ball, apparently ready to throw home in a desperate attempt -- and the ball glanced off his glove. Taylor chased it down, and by now Arozarena was steaming towards home with the winning run, but Taylor's throw and Muncy's relay were good, and it looked like the play would be close. Then Arozarena stumbled, and rolled, and he would have been out by a mile. But the catcher, Will Smith, anticipating a close play, had tried for a sweep tag, and lost the ball. So Arozarena got up and ran home, sliding in headfirst and banging the plate with joy, an image I won't forget.

I can only imagine what my friend and Tampa resident Rick Wilber and his son must have been feeling! But the glee was contagious. One of the great things was watching the post game show, and watching the commentators, great ex-players like Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriquez and David (Big Papi) Ortiz just chortling, literally jumping up and down with happiness -- not because of a rooting interest, but because -- as we sometimes forget -- they truly truly love the game.

Baseball is a small thing next to 230,000 people in the US, over a million in the world, dead from a terrible disease. It's a small thing next to having a brother dying of cancer. It's not nearly as important as the proper governance of our country. But it's still a source of joy, a wonderful thing, when it comes together like it did last night.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Non-Birthday Review: Stories of Marie Brennan

I haven't done a Birthday Review in a bit, and it occurred to me that I had never done a collection of my Locus reviews of Marie Brennan's short fiction ... and I realized that there are some people whose birthdays I don't know. But that's no reason not to post about their wonderful short stories! So here is what I've written about Marie Brennan's short stories in the past dozen years or so:

Locus, March 2008

The Fall On Spec has three nice fantasy stories – each managing to be somewhat traditional and yet quite clever and original. Marie Brennan's "Nine Sketches in Charcoal and Blood” tells of a curious group of seemingly related people at the auction of a dead man’s effects – what sinister secret links them to each other and the dead man, and on what are they bidding? 

Locus, January 2009

I was particularly impressed by Marie Brennan’s “A Heretic by Degrees” (Intergalactic Medicine Show, December). It’s set in a strikingly artificial setting – I was reminded of Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” and Will McIntosh’s “Linkworlds”, to name two other 2008 stories. Brennan’s story opens it what seems a somewhat conventional fantasy world, as the new Councillor Paramount feels pushed to heretically suggest that they look “outside the world” for a cure for their dying King. And soon the Councillor is journeying to a series of strange quite separately and increasingly small “worlds”. Brennan does not content herself with simply displaying this odd universe – we get a similarly odd, and unsettling, explanation, as well as a satisfying and unexpected solution to the Councillor’s (and the King’s ) problem.

Locus, April 2009

From the first 2009 issue of Abyss and Apex I enjoyed "Letter Found In A Chest Belonging To The Marquis de Montseraille Following The Death Of That Worthy Individual", by Marie Brennan, which movingly tells of a man’s love for his wife and their involvement in a rebellion, which led to her death – and how he tried to fix that.

Locus, June 2009

An online source of fiction in much the same mode as Black Gate is Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in April they published four more fine stories. I’ll mention two: Marie Brennan’s “Driftwood” is set in her curious universe where different worlds crash together eventually to disappear – here we meet a woman who has somehow survived the death of her world for centuries.

Locus, June 2011

I had a lot of fun with Marie Brennan’s “Love, Cayce”, in the April Intergalactic Medicine Show. It’s feather light, but not intended to be anything else, telling very humorously of the harrowing adventures of Cayce and a group of her young friends, trying to accomplish a quest (or quests) to compare with their parents’ tiresomely rehashed adventures. Brennan also appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies with “Dancing the Warrior”, a novella that serves to introduce Seniade, a 13 year old dancer who leaves her dancing school to become a warrior. It’s encumbered by its prequel status – there’s not much suspense as Sen encounters cruelty and hazing but will clearly succeed. Still, she’s an engaging character, and the forthcoming novels to feature her are likely worth a look.

Locus, June 2016

Marie Brennan’s “From the Editorial Pages of the Falchester Weekly Review” (Tor.com) is a smart story told as an exchange of letters between Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent) and Benjamin Talbot, who has discovered a cockatrice … escalating effectively to a commentary on fantastical zoology, and on the place of women in science. 

Locus, July 2016

Clockwork Phoenix is back, and its fifth number is another tasty mix of stories that test the borders of genre. Marie Brennan’s “The Mirror-City” is a lovely story turning on a nice conceit: two cities, Venice-like, that are mirror images of each other, reflected in the water; and the marriage that unites them.

Locus, April 2019

Uncanny in March-April includes three stories dealing with somewhat obsessive and ultimately hopeless love. My favorite is a lovely and rather dark tale of a magical school, “Vis Delendi”, by Marie Brennan. Thirteen masters of the school are examining an uninspiring student for the highest possible degree: vis faciendi, attainable only by one who can demonstrate a spectacular new feat of magic. And this young man, Harrik Neconnu, proposes to return a dead woman to life. This woman was a particularly brilliant student, killed in an accident – and she was also the granddaughter of the Opal Master, their leader. And so Neconnu demonstrates his technique, based on an old folktale – convincingly portrayed and quite dark in context – and then the story comes to a fully believable and somewhat wry conclusion.