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book review: The Dragons of Babel

Lately, I've stopped describing myself as a "reader".  I've collected non-fiction like a squirrel collecting nuts, but I've picked up far less fiction, and I've read almost none of it.  I find this disturbing.

Much of this is due to the time spent on other things:  work, television, nervous breakdowns....  I know full well that I'd be better off reading than doing the majority of those things.  Being in writing mode has also had an effect:  it's difficult (for me) to write and read at the same time.  I quickly pick up the mannerisms of whoever I'm with or whatever I'm reading, and this can translate itself into my writing. 

But I need to read in order to improve my writing.  The answer seems to be to have a block of writing followed by a block of reading.  Reading tends to make me watch less television, so there's a plus. 

Add to that some recent conversations regarding "great" novels and personally influential writers, and I was poised to spend part of my vacation reacquainting myself with the reading of fiction.  I am pleased with the results.  Thankfully, I am not so jaded that I can no longer enjoy a book.  However, I do spend some time analyzing it as I go.  That's okay.

This weekend's book was The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick.

I recall appreciating The Iron Dragon's Daughter, when I read it years ago.  The Dragons of Babel is set in the same world:  an industrial grimness mixed with old-school fantasy.  Someone might treat a wound with an incantation and a shot of Lidocaine.  Creatures might ride hippogriffs, or they might ride Vespas.  Somehow, Swanwick makes all that work together seamlessly, to create a world that weirdly familiar yet absolutely alien.  

And, yes, dark.  There is nothing cute about these magical creatures, and pixie dust bears a strong resemblance to cocaine.  

What draws me to the story isn't the darkness, as such.  It's the honest treatment of human proclivities and foibles, and of our capacity for - and enjoyment of - cruelty.  Swanwick is not apologetic about any of that:  we have these capacities and desires within us and it's our decision to try and stand against them.  Or not.  In that respect, it is to me more realistic than most books with a real-world setting.

The story as a whole is...I suspect some would find it pointless.  But the implied pointlessness of it all is what makes the point (so to speak):  we are the architects of our own sound and fury.  But we can also just sit back and enjoy the ride.  It's all a bit of a parable, really.

There's a bit in the middle - you'll know it when you read it - that floats detatched from the rest of the novel.  It does get pulled in again at the end, somewhat.  I'm still puzzling over that bit, and how I feel about it.  And I was pretty certain of some elements of the ending, chapters before it arrived.  But there were other things going on to compensate for any lack of surprise in the ending.  

I'm still sorting through my thoughts on the specifics of the writing style.  There are stories that I like for their story, and stories that I like for their style.  I like Swanwick for the style more than anything else.  The opening paragraph firmly defines the setting, and the type of world-rules we're going to be working with.  By the third paragraph, I've been pulled into the story by an in-joke.  The combination of familiar settings and unfamiliar words creates that sensation of alien-but-known, and frees him from the restriction of anachronism.  Later chapters reference earlier turns of phrase, an action that reminds me of talking with my friends in our collective language of metaphors and shared experiences ("Sokath, his eyes uncovered!"). 

I would not be displeased if some of that style rubbed off on me.  Sheepish, yes; displeased, no.  

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Friending welcome, but lurking is fine too.

Constructive criticism is also welcome - whatever it is, trust me, I've heard worse.

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