If Faery is unconvincing in Beauty then I am not sure what people will make of Faery in Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I, for one, thoroughly approved. In this novel, Faery is a dark, cruel nasty place, inhabited by all sorts of goblins and gargoyles, pixies and nixies, but rather than paint it as some mystical otherworld it is a parallel world to our own. In twentieth century Faery they have kept up with twentieth century Earth: there are shopping malls, schools and Universities, nightclubs and bars, all ruled by the yuppie elves. It is a world that is short of nothing except human souls.
Jane is a human changeling enslaved in a hideous dragon factory as a child in Faery and it is there that she meets the Iron Dragon, known only as 7332. Dragons (there are only iron dragons in this Faery) are the elven equivalent of fighter aircraft and can only be flown by humans or half humans: so 7332 needs Jane to help him escape as much as Jane needs him.
They escape the factory but cannot escape each other: both remain bonded and help each other reluctantly as Jane grows to adulthood in the peculiar world she finds herself in. In a way, Jane is like the typical teenager, but here, Swanwick has made sure that that is exactly as it should be: she goes to school, shoplifts in the mall, meets a boy and survives the suspicion she arouses. She goes to University, meets more boys, studies alchemy and discovers the power of sex. All jolly enjoyable stuff, written at a fine pace and with a great deal of humour: but this novel is more than that.
There is a dark vein to this novel and an underlying sadness: Jane is not able, despite her efforts, to belong in the world she inhabits. She is human and she belongs in the real world, and gradually she begins to realise what she has lost as she dreams of the mother and the life she left behind. Only the iron dragon and the destruction he embodied gives her the chance to leave Faery, and it is only after a lot of pain that she realises this. Partly it is the characters that flit briefly into her life only to be snuffed out: her dearest friend in the factory is Rooster and she sees him die, helping her. At school she meets Gwen and Peter: beautiful, tragic Gwen the wicker queen who is destined to die in flames, and Peter her consort who Jane falls in love with. Puck, who Jane knows she cannot fall in love with Swanwick draws a lot of characters, some grotesque, some hideous, some kind, some almost normal, all with colour and panache: pulling the reader into his phantastic imagining.
I greatly enjoyed The Iron Dragon's Daughter: one of the most well written, imaginative fantasies I have read in some time. It is at turns dark, humorous, evocative and sad but always fascinating