When John Crowley's Little, Big appeared in 1981, it carried (and has carried ever since) a commendation from Ursula Le Guin: 'a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy.' This begs the question, of course ... can we have a redefinition when definition has always been elusive? It may be less so when John Clute has finished weaving the hypertextual Net To Catch Fantasy that will shape the Clute/Grant Fantasy Encyclopedia. For now let's say that, like Little, Big yet far removed from it, The Iron Dragon's Daughter gives one hell of a jolt to received ideas of what is possible in fantasy.
Swanwick's otherworld setting is simultaneously magical and steampunk-like, a dreamland ravaged by Industrial Revolution. Its opening sequence in the vast factory where iron dragons (cybermagical war machines) are made seems to cue a standard picaresque: when Jane the indentured changeling has flown an iron dragon to safety, she and it will have adventures at all the interesting places on the map, right?
In fact the dragon Melanchthon recedes for a time into the background, and Jane's story weaves on through a series of surprises. School life with a class of weirdly assorted nonhumans alternates with shoplifting down at the local mall, with fantasy and realism brutally interwoven. The child-catcher sent to retrieve Jane for the factory engages in a battle of electronic weaponry and countermeasures with the dragon, under the guise of a riddle game. A friend chosen for a year of bliss followed by glorious burning in a wicker cage is of course constantly appearing on TV (and hides a dirty little secret which in our own world, the other side of Dream Gate, could only be allegorical). The school principal's basilisk provides one memorably nasty bit of description. In the next sequence at university, Jane's initiation into how alchemy really works – not to mention the real difference between exoteric and esoteric – has a bizarre ring of conviction. Swanwick's invention never flags, and there are plenty more ingenious set-pieces, outlined with hallucinated intensity.
Besides illuminations there are mysteries, lines of perplexity which all lead to Spiral Castle: not a castle but a singularity, a beginning and ending place, a multidimensional manifold supporting or enclosing the universe. One withered and blasted explorer lectures to the University about his disastrous expedition through Hell Gate almost to Spiral Castle, with slides ... this is called the Deep Grammar lecture. Through tangles of space, time and reincarnation, people may have many simultaneous avatars, and in each section of the book Jane's life becomes tortuously entangled with a different boy/man who is always the same. Other characters recur: one senile and ineffectual-seeming elf (elves are the upper class as always, and total bastards) keeps reappearing as something greater, while each new glimpse of Melanchthon shows him more powerful, ambitious and insane. The iron dragon manipulates Jane mercilessly; no longer a nice girl, she herself has become a dab hand at sexual manipulation and exploitation; the world (not her own) compels it.
In the end, connections with our reality seem almost clear. The awen, the trance of inspiration, gives Dream-Gate visions and glossolalia from our world, its commercials, political slogans, historic phrases: 'one small step for man' ... there is an element of jokiness here and in some of the allusions to mythagos, Friar Bacon's Brazen Head, Little, Big, 1066 and All That, even one dread Lovecraftian tome. Swanwick oversteps just once, with a magick Word of Power which sacrifices everything for the insider's giggle on realizing its syllables are acronyms – SF Writers of America Young-Adult Special Interest Group – oh, come off it!
Penultimately we follow Jane and Melanchthon through Hell Gate into chaos on an impossible mission of destruction, edge-of-the-seat pursuit and black betrayal. The conclusion takes us satisfyingly beyond Spiral Castle and ought to be read.
Indeed the whole of The Iron Dragon's Daughter should be read. It's garish, quirky and new. It will have imitators. Come back in a dozen years and we'll discuss whether it's lasted as well as Little, Big can be seen to have lasted today. Swanwick's chances look pretty good to me.