Review of THE DRAGONS OF BABEL by Michael Swanwick (see his website)
Tor, January 2008
He's just a country boy, living in a small village after his parents are killed by the war. But when a dragon crashes nearby and decides to make himself king of the village, Will Le Fey gets drafted as the voice of the dragon. That role gives him a certain amount of power, but it also earns him the hatred of everyone in town--and when his best friend decides to lead a resistance movement, Will finds himself in a no-win situation.
When war extends across the land, Will and many others become refugees, finally making his way to Babel, the center of the Empire. There he falls in with confidence men and dreamers--and becomes the catspaw for a clever scheme to take advantage of the absent king and place him in the position of pretender--with all of the financial benefits that might create.
Author Michael Swanwick creates a powerful world, where technology and magic coexist, where pointless war is waged over forgotten slights, and where the ruling elite parties, indulges in casual sin, and where both the mob and the elite dream of a return of the absent king--for very different reasons. It's hard not to draw parallels between Swanwick's fantasy world and the world in which we live (Babel's library has stone lions out front, and Will dreams of crashing dragons into the great tower of Babel), and piecing through the clues to figure out exactly what Swanwick is saying about our current situation is half the fun of the story.
Will has vowed revenge for the casual destruction the forces of Babel called down on his home, but the world seems uninterested in his vows, conspiring to defeat his dreams at the same time as it showers new opportunities on him. Clearly Will is being manipulated. Exactly who, or what is doing that manipulation is less obvious--partly because so many forces seem intent on doing that.
There are some loose ends to the story--a long section in the middle where Will serves as an underground (literally) warrior champion seems poorly integrated with the story and I expected to see more of a resolution of the issues involving ex-friend No-name, the dragon, and Esme. Still, THE DRAGONS OF BABEL has a real power to it--the story sucked me in, made me think, and held my interest. It's a different kind of story, but it's hard to put down.
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