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First off: I had to buy the third book and read-read it because it was not available on Audible. (ugh, I know, what a chore. *sarcasm)
Second: The series should be sold together as one book. It reads as one book instead of three, and they are short. Don't bother buying it unless it goes on one of the $4.95 sales.
Third: The series is bleak. There is no happy ending. You meet one of the main characters dead at the beginning of the first book and spend the rest of the series finding out what kind of person he was and how he ended up in the middle of nowhere dead.
Fourth: There is something missing.... It is like we are only given a small slice of time in this world. Get told just enough things that had happened in the past to move the story along, things that center around the town itself--but it feels like there was not enough, that a lot of history was glossed over. There is a world here that needs more expansion, and maybe that is what is going to happen in future books? IDK, but it is like hitting the ground running on this one.
In conclusion: It wasn't a waste of time to read it. It would black your soul just a little bit by the end of it. So if you don't like listening about the rat-infested slums, drug abuse, the lives of the barely-living poor, and demonic murderers: pass it up.
However, I did like the fictional religions, and there is solid world-mechanics behind how the demon-born taint the spaces around them and why the Wolf Priests want to stop their spread. Even the sympathetic Rachel is too dangerous to be around.
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The narrator of J. M. McDermott's Never Knew Another (2011) and her husband are Walkers of the goddess Erin, healer-hunter-exorcist-executioner priests who don wolf skins to become super wolves to search out and purify the demon taint of Elishta. At the start of the novel the wife recounts finding the toxic corpse of a demon child dressed in the uniform of a king's man, removing the head to access the mind adhering to the skull. The first thing she heard was the demon spawn (Jona) screaming, "Where is my body?" And "Where is Rachel?" Then the Walkers used ants and flowers to cleanse the skeleton of its tainted flesh and dragged the skull to Jona's city, Dogsland (wolves call all cities that because dogs stink them up)
The wife and husband are at home in forests and mountains. According to their faith, all creatures eat, sleep and love, which tasks are difficult for human beings because Erin cursed them with intelligence, and the people who build cities are those who find the curse a blessing. Nonetheless, the Walkers are staying among the "bellicose monkeys" of Jona's city, because they must purify the places Jona frequented and the people he contaminated. Their task is complicated by the fact that in Dogsland Jona got to know two other demon children, Salvatore Fidelio (an immortal, amoral, amnesiac thief) and Rachel Nolander (a Senta, or nomadic philosopher, fortune teller, and elemental sorceress). Although Jona is dead, Rachel and Salvatore still require extermination and purification, but Rachel has fled the city, while Salvatore is untraceable, thanks to powerful friends in high places.
The Walker wife frames the memories of Jona and his lover Rachel provided by his skull with brief updates on the progress of her and her husband's mission in the present. (She can't access the memories of Salvatore because he forgets everything.). The memories subject the Walker wife to a double consciousness: "his days and sleepless nights, and his great love all floated over the surface of my world." The more memories she writes down, the more sympathetic Jona and Rachel become. Their memories are so vivid that it's easy to forget that they've already met, fallen in love, and separated, resulting in Jona's death. This is a poignant love story, a doomed romance between outsiders in an inimical world. Supposedly demon spawn have been banished underground for 1000 years, and though Rachel always had her protective big human half-brother and Jona his self-sacrificing, protective human mother, they always feared discovery and were lonely and "never knew another" like themselves.
The Walkers believe that the children of Elishta are born evil and cannot escape their demonic natures. Indeed, Salvatore is a self-centered thief and serial lover, destroyer, and forgettor of women, while Jona is both a somewhat dirty king's man (policeman) and a brutal if reluctant "blood monkey" (assassin) for the Night King (crime lord). Yet neither Salvatore nor Jona are as bad as the people they work for. To be sure, demon child blood, sweat, tears, and urine are toxic, acidic, and flammable. To share an apple or a bottle or a bath or a kiss with a human would make the person quite ill. (Given the nature of demonic bodily fluids, I wonder how violent Jona and lothario Salvatore could escape detection for so long and how male demon spawn and human women could make babies!) But it's hard not to sympathize with Jona when he says things like, "I want to know what dreams are like" (because he has never slept). And Rachel! She may have serpentine scales, taloned feet, and a forked tongue and may smell of brimstone and may not cast a shadow or a mirror reflection, but she is a sweetie who says things like, "The seed of my life's flower has landed here. It is my responsibility to bloom," and "I'm just me. I'm not a destroyer of life."
One of the best things about the book is that McDermott writes rounded, real characters. In addition to the complex demon spawn, there are plenty of flawed and sympathetic human characters: Aggie, the stir-crazy convent girl in love with Salvatore; Djoss, Rachel's beloved champion brother who is weak on drugs; Lady Ela Sabacthani, the magician-lord's daughter who is aging and needs to hear she's beautiful; Sergeant Nicola Calipari, Jona's commanding officer, who is wise and compassionate but had to kill Jona.
Dogsland is a vivid city: "The wind smelled of the slaughterhouses of the district, but the stench of death also carried layers of turnips and cabbages and onions and the cloth diapers boiling clean." Whorehouses, temples, bars, cafes, vendors, sewers; night soil, fetid mud, potent stenches; and highly addictive demon weed that makes users sweat blood and turns their brains into "cheese." The nobility live in fine estates on an artificial island separated from the rest of the city, while most of the action occurs in the abattoir slums.
McDermott writes bleak, vivid prose with a dry wit and a lean poetry:
"Everything living had died where the tainted blood pooled. Tiny red mushrooms--all deadly--sprouted like warts. This noxious corpse wore the uniform of a king's man."
"She creased her eyebrows like little hammers."
"Fear becomes normal, like walking with a limp."
"Your blood is eating my sleeve."
Like McDermott's The Last Dragon, this book is a grim, poignant, weird read. He writes compact novels packed with more substance, thought, and emotion than most bloated works of heroic fantasy. He uses genre tropes in merciless, imaginative, and (mostly) convincing ways. People who like bleak, fresh fantasy should try Never Knew Another. However, be advised that the novel needs the next two volumes of the Doglsland trilogy to give closure (and the third book isn't available as an audiobook).
Eileen Stevens reads the audiobook fine.
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