From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick
Tor (320 pages) $24.95

Many readers have already read a good fraction — perhaps a half — of this novel in various short stories over the past several years. And indeed there have been a couple of related stories not incorporated in the final novel … not to mention The Dragons of Babel is a sequel to Swanwick’s well-received 1993 novel The Iron-Dragon’s Daughter. Which is to say that, in general terms, the setting of Swanwick’s new novel is familiar. And which is also to anticipate the simplest criticism of The Dragons of Babel: it is rather episodic and not always to good effect — the main character’s nature changes in not entirely plausible ways as events unfold.

That’s the last negative thing I have to say. Because, in the final analysis, despite concerns over the structure of the book and the not quite consistent central character, I loved The Dragons of Babel. This is a sequel that reads perfectly well without any knowledge of the earlier book. It is a novel fully aware of the fallen nature of the world that is nonetheless a celebration of the possibilities of happiness and love — and still a criticism of war and corruption and betrayal. It is at once dark and exuberant, clever and cynical, exotic and down to earth.

Will la Fey is a part mortal boy growing up in an agrarian village as the novel opens. But war comes to the village, in the form of a dragon/jet fighter of the enemy which crash lands and decides to become a local despot. He chooses Will as his liaison, forcing the boy to commit terrible crimes. In the end, despite an act of heroism, Will is forced from his village to become a refugee, amidst many cast adrift by the war. Over time he tends towards the capitol of the enemy, Babel, in the process gathering some companions: an amnesiac girl who is in fact a very old woman, a con man named Nat Whilk, and Nat’s sometime lover, the foxwoman Victoria Vixen. Will learns Nat’s skills, and also begins to learn about the people of Babel, in an episode among the dispossessed living underground, and working for a corrupt but goodhearted alderman, and then hobnobbing with the highborn elves who rule the city in the absence of the true King. And Nat has plans for Will, as the focal point of a particularly audacious con, while Will has fallen for a particular elf-maiden, so that his plans include a hopeless desire to make a life with her.

Much of the fascination of this book comes from the curious setting: a somewhat traditional fantasy world complete with elves and haints and huldras and so on mixed with modern technology — the dragon jets, yes, and also nods at contemporary pop culture, and trains, and so on. But also hippogriffs. Every so often this seems undisciplined, but I suspect that’s intended. The end result is to make the politics seem to matter — and that is certainly what Swanwick intends, for that is what drives the ending, which is perfect. Swanwick manages to excite real wonder at the fantastical backdrop, and also real belief in the “ordinary” people living ordinary lives in this world. Which makes the ending, Will’s final choices, important. And so they work. And the novel is in the end almost happy — at least convinced of the worth of the search for happiness; and yet realistic, and ,convinced of the certainty of sadness. And just…right. I was reminded, oddly of a novel otherwise completely different — Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates — in the way that the endings made the whole thing work retroactively. This is lovely stuff. (January 2008, ISBN: 978-0-7653-1950-0) – Rich Horton.

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Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus
Dutton (352 pages) 17.99

Many people regard New York City, particularly Manhattan, as a magical, wonder -filled place. It’s also been said that as long as you are remembered, you never truly die. Thirteen-year-old Rory Hennessy and his little sister, Bridget, are about to find out that those statements are literally more true than they could have ever known. After a magician’s trick opens Rory’s eyes, he is able to see the world around him with new vision. Suddenly, he is aware of the spirit world surrounding his Manhattan home. Manhatta, as it is called, exists alongside the mundane city. There, magic exists, and every person who was worth remembering, from Babe Ruth to notable shoplifters, lives on there in spirit form. Some even achieve godhood. For two centuries, Alexander Hamilton has ruled as mayor. That is only the beginning of the marvels that wait in the parallel world. Rather than being disgusting, loathsome creatures, cockroaches are noble warriors and golems made of papier-mâché can extend the lives of the grievously injured until such time as a healing is possible.

When Bridget and Rory steped into that strange land, it should have been a purely joyful trip of discovery. Manhatta, however, contains dark secrets. Politics and magic have combined to turn heroes into less than noble beings. The heart of the kingdom is still Central Park, but the Indians, known there as the Munsees, are caged in what is known as the Trap. There is a struggle going between those who want to set the Munsee free and others who prefer they remain locked away. Due to talents he has only now learned he possessed, Rory seems to be the key to resolving this.

The pair is guided on their journey initially by Hex, a strange enigma of a man with more than one name, and the odd, mute boy made of paper who is his companion. Both are more than they seem. Hex craves power above all else, and will sacrifice anything, or anyone, to gain it. Bridget may become his latest victim in that quest, unless Rory can save her, and not only her, but the city itself. Somehow, he and his allies need to accomplish all before his parents have a chance to realize the children are missing.

Mebus presents young readers with an intriguing story that challenges them to realize there is more to the world than the flat layer we perceive. Through Rory’s journey, we come to the awareness that while doing the right thing is always desired, it must also be done at the proper time, or things can get worse rather than better. An introductory novel, Gods of Manhattan ends with an effective hook leading to the next volume in the series, but still wraps up the plot so it feels complete. Young readers are subtly encouraged to learn more about who the “gods” of Manhattan were in history, making this a book parents and teachers should love almost as much as the kids. (April 2008, ISBN: 9780525479550) — Amanda Kilgore

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