Elves, centaurs, dragons, trolls, witches, hippogriffs, and other creatures even more fantastical throng through Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel. But it isn’t what you’re thinking. Swanwick has taken classic fantasy and mythology and done a cheerfully brutal mash-up with the seamier elements of our own modern world. There’s plenty of technology (from cigarette lighters to subway trains with electrical third rails), explicit sex, and casual profanity, not to mention overt references to actual historical figures like Mozart and Flaubert.

The first 2/3 of the novel seems almost picaresque — young Will is wandering through the world without much direction, falling in with whoever he meets, getting into trouble, falling in love, and so on. But Swanwick has a deeper design. Eventually the story is revealed as a modern expression of one of the timeless fantasy themes.

I’m not even going to tell you which theme, because that would spoil it. This book is a winner. If you’re looking for something fresh in the fantasy genre, you won’t want to miss it.

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