The fourth Swanwick book I've read, and the first fantasy. I also discovered after the fact that it was a Clarke shortist candidate. I'd consider such a status deserved, this was one of the more compelling fantasy sagas I've read in awhile. It's just so purpusefully bizarre and interesting, taking apart a lot of stock fantasy elements and rebuilding them into an awesome new setting. Above the environment, though, what I like the most about this piece is how the situations get conveyed, with a lot of major weird encounters and exchanges. This work is also one that makes better use of extreme continual sex than Bug Jack Barron, mixing in a lot of play on it which builds to the situation. In the story, I'm particularly impressed with how seamlessly the plot goes from a forced-labor camp to a surreal magic university. A little difficult to organize my thoughts coherently on this one, I do plan to reread this book a few years down the road, and it also moves up my interest in reading Swanwick's other work.
It works particuarly well by playing with conventions on fantasy, taking a lot of very familiar elements and completely demolishing the whole post-Tolkien convention on what they’re supposed to behave like and want. The society that emerges is a lot more chaotic, diverse and alive than the typical fantasy setting, and it’s also a lot more interesting. Even more believable, within the confines of a very weird mix of college antics, apocalyptic dragon-oriented intrigue and shadowy quasi-religious forces. Particularly enjoyable is the way the account largely doesn’t halt for exposition, instead it dives on following its protagonist through a weird array of circumstances that are funny and bizarre enough to be appealing even when there’s no context, and to pick up the sense of large understanding later.
Better than: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
Worse than: Iron Council by China Mieville