The OF Blog: J.M. McDermott, Last Dragon

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

J.M. McDermott, Last Dragon

My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it's all mixed up in my head. I can't separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi. Even you, even me. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth's face, and the face of the golem.

Esumi, do you remember the night before you left? We threw a grand ball in your honor. A skald sang of the glorious deeds. My deeds, my husband's, and even yours were sung. And Adel's glorious song eclipsed us all. Three hundred cantos extolling her deeds were barely enough for the ones who didn't know her when she was alive. I knew her. You didn't. I don't know if she was really our savior, or simply the monster who fooled us all. Both, perhaps. I don't know. I never did. I think she was my friend, but even that's fuzzy. For all I know I was a weapon for her, no better than any mercenary. Or perhaps I was her friend, like a trusted weapon at her side, a trusted warrior. And, she is a hero worthy of song.

In these letters I wish to tell you of us and his empire, Alameda. (p. 3, ARC)
This opener to J.M. McDermott's debut novel, Last Dragon, serves as a portal for what follows next. Eschewing a straight narrative tale, McDermott's story of a young girl, Zhan, and her search for her grandfather, who has been accused of killing her family as well as others in her native village, moves in an episodic, rapid-fire fashion in which each scene lasts little more than a page or two. As Zhan and others (most of whom are mentioned in that opening sequence quoted above) travel in search for her grandfather in an attempt to understand just what could have led him to wreak such havoc among his people, the reader is treated to a series of narrative fragments, fragments that at first can be disorienting for those expecting lots of straightforward expository writing, but which when considered carefully in their own light, yield some surprisingly intense character insights. Here is one such fragment:

I followed Adel in the city for days. We learned to speak to each other. We talked of anything we could, and I taught her pieces of my own language. Fish. Winter. Night. Run.

We traveled all day long and talked to beggars, hookers, and innkeepers. All through time, the same stories over and over again. The same contempt or the same sadness poured from the mouths of the brown faces. Cities are full of people who say the same things to strangers. I wondered if there was a conspiracy. (p. 55, ARC)
For many authors, such a scene would have been expanded to at least a chapter and maybe a series of chapters. Perhaps some readers would rather that it had been done so. But by boiling away all of the minutiae and leaving only the barest outline of what transpired during this one stop on their travels, McDermott forces the reader to pause and to reflect upon the magnitude of that one observation (just one of many) before the reader, like the characters, travels along the winding paths of this story.

In discussing a book, it is usually unfair to compare any author, especially one such as McDermott making his debut, to an acclaimed writer. I hesitate to mention this, but in his press release, McDermott's writing is compared to that of Gene Wolfe and Gabriel García Márquez. Such comparisons almost always end up being detrimental to the present work and I had to work hard to rid myself of such comparisons, but yet I did see certain traits that reminded me of others. While comparisons to Wolfe's work probably deals with the compressed narrative style that reminds some of Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series, the García Márquez comparison really isn't found in the narrative structure or characterizations as much as it is in the little passages that are so damning when considered at length, such as the one I cited above.

But these comparisons really don't touch upon the strengths of McDermott's work. In and around and even behind the narrative glimpses we read, one can get the sense that his characters are growing and developing and are not passive objects in a world where it seems that great and terrible powers are at play. Zhan, Adel, and even the golem of Zhan's mysterious grandfather have a "life" of their own that a perceptive reader can see shining through even the shortest and most opaque of passages. Their quest and search for meaning/truth drives this story and makes it a compelling one.

However, for many readers, the patience required to glean all of this may be too much. Doubtless there will be those who will lambast McDermott for writing in such a "fractured fiction" style. Some will find themselves wishing that McDermott had explored the scenes and the characters in even more detail, bringing them further out into the "light." Those are valid opinions as to what constitutes the "best" approach towards telling a story, but such criticisms risk missing the point of what McDermott appears to be doing here. By stripping away so much of the narrative "padding," McDermott has revealed a story, or perhaps stories would be a better term, in which readers use their own imaginations and biases to fill in the gaps and to imbue the characters with qualities that couldn't be done with a more transparent approach. Writing in this style may seem easy at first glance, but the more I have considered this story since I finished reading it, the more I came to believe that this was a very difficult (but ultimately rewarding) approach. The story, as McDermott apparently set out to tell, achieves most of its ambitious goals. I found myself reading and re-reading passages, fitting together images and possibilities, learning as I read on. When I reached the final page, I felt I had traveled a long way. Needless to say, I highly recommend Last Dragon for those readers who enjoy challenging but rewarding fictions.

Publication Date: February 5, 2008 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Discoveries (Wizards of the Coast)


J M McDermott said...

For the record, I tried to convince the publisher to drop those two authorial comparisons, and my editor moved forward with them against my wishes.

Thanks for reviewing the book, and I'm glad I could write something you enjoyed!

Larry said...

After I completed the review, I did a search and saw the interview you did with Charles Tan where you addressed that. Good thing I saw it, because one poster over at the Westeros forums thought that was the height of arrogance, until I copy/pasted your comments on that issue.

Reviewing the book was the least I could do, as this is certainly was an enjoyable work :D

hnu said...

@larry: thanks for this review, you convinced me (jeff had already started to, and the nice cover did the rest) to go look for it. who knows, maybe i've just found a new possible romanian translation?
off-topic: you're on my blogroll too!

Larry said...

Glad to have persuaded you, Horia, as I think it's a work a great many would enjoy reading. And thanks for the addition! :D

D_Davis said...

Nice essay for, what I consider to be, the greatest single work of fantasy ever writte.

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