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Last Dragon falls into a space somewhere between straightforward genre fantasy and literary fiction, which is probably why not too many readers have noticed it. The bones of the plot have a lot in common with the former: there’s a teenage girl, destined to become an Empress (which we know because she’s writing an epistolary from her older years), who leaves her nomadic people to seek blood justice against her grandfather, who has murdered her family and most of the rest of her village, then fled. Along with her slightly-older uncle, who is now technically the village shaman, she travels over the mountains and enters the more civilized, darker-skinned country to the south.
As we might expect, the young Zhan will find companions on the road who have their own histories and purposes, learn about the wider world, discover that the truth is more complex than the one she began with, and get sucked into a war that comes back to her people. Not everyone’s stories, when fully revealed, will be quite as they seem. Several of the main characters have an ambiguous quality to them.
Unlike a lot of fantasy, which tends to proceed in a linear way, Zhan’s tale is expressed in semi-ordered, dreamlike fragments, concentrating less on genre tropes, and more on how humans reveal themselves in their interactions. There are betrayals and surprises that will emerge, some of which seem to be a product of the older Zhan’s unreliable memory. There’s a definite Gene Wolfe flavor -- if The Book of the New Sun spoke to you, this probably will, too (and if you hated The Shadow of the Torturer, you’re not the audience for this book). The format can be a little confusing, but there were enough contextual hints for me to mostly keep track of the plot.
But, man, McDermott can write. I loved the sparse, delicate beauty of the prose, and the haunting imagery that fills the book. Camp fires made from an intoxicating weed that grows in the mountains. A language that considers a bird to be any creature that sings. Ancient dragons that onced imparted their preternatural wisdom to a nation, an order of paladin who sacrificed their own lives to maintain the great creatures, and black-skinned soldiers from the south, who brought an end to this order (and many others) with their musketry. Ants that crawl in the masonry of a great city, and come to play their own disquieting role. An old warrior, from a place where different tribes modify their bodies to pay homage to different animals, telling a blend of personal and tall tales from childhood, which include a moment where a storm drops fish from the sky on a column of captives. There’s an ambiguity and bleakness to the main story, which ends unhappily for most in it, but it’s told in such a lovely way, including Cori Samuels’s English-accented audio narration.
Not everyone will like this book. If you prefer novels to have a clear plot resolution, with all the characters’ motives fully revealed, you should probably look elsewhere. However, if you accept that books can be puzzles, with meanings that are hinted at through allegorical imagery and invocation of themes, Last Dragon is worthy of your time. While the novel sometimes loses itself in its own dreamlike gauziness and structural experimentation, and perhaps a few of the author’s ideas and characters could have been developed a little more, it’s an impressive first novel.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon (2008) is told by the empress Zahn Immur as she writes letters to her absent lover Esumi in which she recounts the story of the quest on which she embarked as a "violent fool" of a girl with her shaman uncle Seth, leaving their northern tundra steppe homeland for the southern island city-state Proliux, following in the footsteps of her murderer grandfather. In some ways, the book is a typical heroic fantasy genre novel: pseudo-medieval world marked by different cultures in conflict for empires; quests featuring a varied set of companions (paladin, shaman, gypsy, mercenary, golem, simpleton, warrior); hardship and trials beyond human endurance; graphic violence; master-apprentice relationships; the maturing of a youthful protagonist; and--in a way--dragons.
However, Last Dragon feels so much different from usual heroic fantasy fare that it almost belongs in its own genre. For one thing, it tweaks usual genre elements like golems, paladins, dragonslayers, and dragons. It also interestingly depicts real world things like spiders, ants, and language. Epic battles, if any, occur off-screen. Furthermore, the novel is dramatically, psychologically, and philosophically dense and bracingly short and self-contained (no 1000-page first installment in a ten-book series this!). It is also much better written than typical heroic fantasy: lovers of vivid, poetic, and spare prose would appreciate McDermott's style: "I was numb like a sleeping limb. I felt something vague rumbling underneath my skin. It was a harsh tingle like cold and death and bitter sex all at once. It left me in stillness. I held still and felt that emptiness echoing inside my own empty body." And the book is much more bleak, unsettling, and ambiguous than most heroic fantasy: Was the paladin a savior saint or a monstrous manipulator? Was the shaman a selfish murderer or a self-sacrificing leader? Was the mercenary a slave or a free man? Is the warrior destined for her culture's equivalent of heaven or for hell? What kind of victory involves such loss, grief, and guilt? Etc.
Perhaps the most atypical and challenging thing about Last Dragon is McDermott's strategy of having Zahn tell the story of her painful maturing through her youthful quests in the letters to Esumi she is writing as a white-haired, terminally ill empress. Because of her old age and the tricky nature of memory, she is not always a reliable or easy narrator to follow. As she says in the first paragraph, "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." Her early memories mix in a non-chronological stream of consciousness Sound and Fury way, making for provocative foreshadowing of future past scenes, as well as for multiple revisitings of key events, each time with a little more detail revealed than in the previous ones. Moreover, Zahn is recounting to Esumi the forging of their empire from before she first met him and eliding shared things he'd know about, like the death of their daughter and their forced separation. In short, to appreciate McDermott's careful crafting of his novel and to understand its plot, it helps to experience the first few chapters and then to start the book again.
One of the other neat things about Last Dragon is how the interactions between the characters on their quests reveal their different cultures and worldviews. Thus, in Almedan every creature that sings (bird, cricket, or frog) is called "bird" and there is no word for "slave," while the desert language of the mercenaries has a word for "tribe" but none for "family." Proliux people believe that you become whatever you kill, while Almedan people believe you stay the same person you always were no matter how many dead you leave behind you. Alamedans sing lullabies to babies and corpses. And McDermott writes a broken English when people try to talk to each other in foreign languages: "Hand heal, angry heal. Pride--I know not your word, but it never heal. Kill yourself your own pride, and live yourself long."
A few times the text of Last Dragon made the grammarian in me wince, as when characters who otherwise speak good grammar say, “Lay down” or “You who does not answer.” And I wonder about names in the novel. Alamedan culture has Japanese-esque names (Esumi), real world names (Seth), and fantasy-world names (Kyquil). Proliuxian culture has names from our world like Adel, Bosch, and Tycho. And if McDermott can make up names for cool concepts like the "mardar" (wind demons) of his African-esque desert-oasis people, you would think that he could make up cool names for the Proluxian proconsuls and the Alamedan senseis, skalds, and shamans.
Cori Samuel is a clear reader with an appealing British accent, but I sometimes found her rhythm and inflection to be a little monotonous.
Minor kvetching aside, I found Last Dragon to be remarkable: beautiful, terrible, funny, sad, and rich. It compellingly explores themes about memory, love, longing, duty, free will, justice, power, and communication. If you like reading a book in which the narrator says something like, "Grandfather's golem listened to us silently from his place beside the flame," and you have no idea what a golem is, how it belongs to Grandfather, why he has a place by the fire, why he listens to the others, and who they are and what they are doing, and if you enjoy finding out the answers to such questions little by little by continuing to read, you should give Last Dragon a try.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful