The Dragons of Babel
by Michael Swanwick
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319500
Date: 22 January 2008 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Will le Fey is an orphan living with his elderly, cranky aunt in a little village when a crashed war dragon changes his life forever. A creature of flesh and metal, piloted by a dead half-mortal, the crippled beast declares itself ruler of Will's village and enslaves the boy, turning him into his unwilling catspaw and insinuating his evil in Will's deepest self.
Thus begins The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, a daring work of "faeriepunk" that takes its hero from the gutters to the very heights of the Faerie world (literally!). Will's odyssey really commences when he is cast out of his village, scooped up by a patrol and herded into a prison camp for refugees, and then liberated through the machinations of confidence trickster Nat Whilk.
Pressed into service as Whilk's unenthusiastic protege, Will is separated from his mentor by fate and finds himself consigned to the sewers below the Tower of Babel (a fantasy version of New York City, albeit perpetually at war with its neighbors). In this deep kingdom, he learns the ways of command, constructing an army at the bidding of an ancient and disgraced high elf and launching an attack against the surface world. Not much later, he teams up with Whilk once more on an audacious plan that requires help from Alcyone, a beautiful daughter of an important noble house... and the object of Will's desire as well.
Careening from one peril to the next, in a series of misadventures that culminate in some improbable predicaments for the young hero, Will meets a vast array of strange and interesting folk-- from a perpetual child with odd talents to a spectral alderman who teaches Will about how politics really works to a childhood friend turned deadly enemy to a ruthless werefox, and many more.
At the last, however, Will is faced with a terrible situation. What happens when your wildest ambition isn't worth it? When, if you win the girl, you can't have happily ever after? What then? Will's answer may surprise you.
Swanwick pulls out all the stops in this novel, which recreates the Tower of Babel as if it embodied pieces of New York City and Chicago from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Political corruption, Machiavellian manipulations, byzantine alliances, a bizarre assembly of fairy creatures from every culture under the sun... it's all here and much, much more.
The Dragons of Babel may remind some of China Miéville's New Crobuzon stories. They share a sensibility, transposing much of the modern into their fantasy settings, but the way their heroes work through their problems is quite different. Still, readers who especially enjoy the one might enjoy the other just as much.
But any readers looking for something very unusual--with plenty of adult content--will find Dragons a rewarding read.