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When We Were Executioners (2012), the middle book in J M McDermott's Dogsland trilogy, takes up where the first one, Never Knew Another (2011), left off. The Walker husband and wife who can change into wolves and are dedicated to eradicating the demon spawn of Elishta are still hunting for the immortal demon child Salvatore Fidelio (a thief who, "addled by eternity," serially loves and forgets young women) and trying to purify places contaminated by the dead demon child Jona Lord Joni (a landless noble who was a king's man by day and a "blood monkey" assassin by night). The Walkers' mission in the city wolves call Dogsland has become more challenging, because at the end of of the first book they let ruthless Lady Ela Sabacthani know they know she's the Night King crime lord.
We know from the start that Jona's lover Rachel (another demon child) has fled the city and that somehow as a result he has been killed ("In death he was a blight below a bluff where toxic mushrooms sprouted in his blood"). The Walker wife is haunted by the vivid memories of the lovers emanating from Jona's skull and pushing into hers "like a kept sea." She narrates chapters from their points of view while giving updates on the present progress of her and her husband's extermination and purification mission. The memories of Jona and Rachel make them sympathetic: "Her face and the way she looked at him make me happy, because Jona was loved by someone before he died." The Walkers are hunting Salvatore rather than Rachel, because they figure he's a greater and nearer threat to humanity.
This book develops the conflicting relationships between Rachel and Jona and Rachel and her big human half-brother Djoss. Ever since as a boy Djoss killed Rachel's demon father he's protected her, but as he becomes enmeshed in selling and using demon weed in Dogsland, their roles reverse. While Rachel loves Jona and he her (demon children in a hostile world) and they’re sharing their bodies, hopes, and pasts, Jona hides his assassinry from Rachel while she signals that at a pinch she’d choose Djoss over Jona. In the passages depicting Jona and the king's men's attempts to track down the people pushing demon weed and Djoss and his friends' attempts to steal and sell and use it, the novel seems a gritty fantasy police story. The novel also depicts Jona's disturbing treatment of Aggie, the novitiate of Imam he's framed as a demon child to protect her lover Salvatore, the real demon spawn. The less interested in Aggie's fate Salvatore becomes, the more outraged Jona becomes, even as he continues feeding the poor imprisoned girl food laced with his own demon blood to keep her testing positive for demon taint. The novel also reveals Ela's lonliness and ambition, which drive her to start feeling Jona out as a potential husband and co-ruler of Dogsland, despite Jona wanting Rachel more than power.
This book has many impressive set pieces: magical, like Jona leaning out Rachel's window looking up at lambent clouds, watching rain drops appear, and catching them in his mouth; romantic, like Jona showing Rachel his wing scars; funny, like Djoss coming home when Jona and Rachel are in bed together; ironic, like Djoss searching for Rachel and finding Aggie; horrifying, like Rachel witnessing Aggie's public burning and Djoss its aftermath; disturbing, like when Djoss accepts a pipe of demon weed and "A universe opened in his skull"; suspenseful, like when the king's men raid a dive where Djoss and his partner in crime have gone to divvy up some pelf.
This book has much imaginative, fantastic, and vivid writing: "Rachel pressed into him. Her warm scales funneled Jona's sweat into her mattress like tile roofs guiding rain to eaves. The scales nipped at his damp skin when she moved. If she pressed hard enough she might scrape him."
It's not for the squeamish. At one point Jona's fellow king's man (sick from sharing a bottle with Jona) literally craps out his intestines; at another Jona uses his demon blood to murder a man, boiling his eyes and melting his head. Yet the demon children aren't exactly the "abominations" the Walkers seek to extirpate. Jona is disappointing (his obedient murdering for the Night King) and disturbing (his twisted treatment of Aggie) and appealing (his desperate love of Rachel) and never feels evil. Sweet Rachel says, "I don't feel evil." Demon weed is more pernicious than demon spawn, owning the city and destroying its people.
Dogsland appears to be a living city via slang (pinkers, mudskippers, bliss, tight, roll, etc.) and denizens (sailors, gangers, bouncers, ragpickers, stevedores, vendors, porters, butchers, king's men, whores, maids, mothers, ladies and lords, etc.). The separation of the nobles on their artificial island from the riffraff of the city is increasingly wrong, with plans in the works to isolate the abattoir district on a new artificial island. The Walkers believe Dogsland is rotting from the inside and will be reclaimed by woods--and they're planning to speed the process via cleansing fire: "We will no longer be executioners chasing after a prize. We will be the fire that purifies this city for 1000 years." And the couple invokes "merciful Erin."
The book has many themes: the difficulty of happiness in a city; the devastating nature of drugs; the pain of love; the nature of humanity; the importance of empathy; the harm of political power abused; etc.
As with the first book, Eileen Stevens gives a great reading of this one. I regret that there is no audiobook of the last novel in the trilogy. And that this book, like the first one, ends with neither resolution nor rest. (I'll read the kindle version of the third!) Readers who liked the first book would like this one too.
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