I'm working from an Advanced Reading Copy of J.M. McDermott's first novel Last Dragon, mind you, rather than the finished product, and maybe things are better on the actual book cover, but I thought I'd start my review with a short discussion of book cover blurbs and how they can both help and hurt a novel. There are good blurbs that say intelligent things about your book and that will hype sales, and then there are blurbs that are so exaggerated and claim so much that you're better off without them. McDermott's novel, unfortunately, is saddled with a couple of blurbs of the latter sort. According to the editors at Wizards of the Coast, Last Dragon is "the most startlingly original fantasy novel in decades." Right. Worse still, they insist that McDermott "brings the fantasy genre to new literary heights with a remarkable first novel that will leave critics and readers alike in stunned awe."
Stunned awe. I ask you, how many fantasy or science fiction novels have ever left you in stunned awe and particularly how many first novels? Neuromancer, maybe? The Hobbit, perhaps? It's a very short list, in any case, and one that Last Dragon does not belong on. My guess is that such self-evidently over the top claims are likely to hurt McDermott's sales rather than help them, turning off the casual bookstore browser. That would be a shame, because this is an excellent book. One wishes that the editors had instead limited themselves to the far more intelligent blurbs that appear on the website (and perhaps on the final book as well) from the likes of novelists Jeff VanderMeer and Paul Witcover, who do make it clear, without exaggeration, that this is indeed a book worth reading. End of sermon, on to the novel itself.
First the basics: we're dealing with a very grim secondary universe here. Magic is present, but relatively low-key and rarely fun. There were real dragons once, but they're all dead. In general most people have it bloody awful. Zhan, an aging woman, perhaps an empress, is recalling her life in what we eventually realize are a series of short letters, or perhaps diary entries, ostensibly written to someone we learn later in the book is a long-absent lover. Because none of novel's many, fragmented sections contain either headings or dates, however, and since they jump back and forth in time and space, things quickly get rather confusing in a nicely literary and post-modern manner. As a young woman, a member of a primitive northern tribe, Zhan was quite literally in the midst of taking her final vows as a warrior when she was called back home by a terrible tragedy. For reasons that are never entirely clear, her grandfather, a wild, perhaps mad, wanderer who had spent years away from their ancestral village, had returned home and slaughtered Zhan's entire extended family before escaping south through the snow. Zhan and her shaman uncle, Seth, have been charged with tracking him down, executing him, and returning him to the village to bear witness to his crime, and, yes, that is the intended order of events since in this culture death does not necessarily bring an end to consciousness.
Following the grandfather's trail through many hardships, Zhan and her uncle eventually reach the powerful southern civilization of Proliux which is more advanced perhaps, but no less violent and considerably more vicious and decadent than their own. Accumulating companions—a renegade noblewoman, an aging mercenary, a simpleton, a beautiful gypsy who turns out to be something other than entirely human—in the prescribed fantasy tale manner she and Seth capture her grandfather, execute him, and begin the long trek home, the dead grandfather trudging along in zombie form on the end of a rope. Unwittingly, however, they have also alerted the vicious and greedy rulers of Proliux to the existence of a perhaps less powerful civilization to their north and Zhan and her friends soon find themselves racing ahead of an army, hoping to reach home in time to spread a warning of impending invasion.
So that's the plot of Last Dragon, but it isn't really what the novel is about and I haven't really told you anything that will detract from your enjoyment of the book, if, of course, this is the kind of book you enjoy. In actual fact, Last Dragon is far more a novel of form and style than it is one of plot or specific content. Indeed, despite the book's intensely literary pose and prose, the violent northern barbarian culture and the equally violent but decadent southern civilization that McDermott depict aren't really anything that won't be familiar to veteran readers of Robert E. Howard, who it strikes me may be every bit as much an influence on the novel as McDermott's acknowledged masters, Gene Wolfe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I've already referred to the ways in which the novel jumps back and forth in time and space. McDermott, a recent graduate of the University of Houston's Creative Writing program, uses this post-modern cut-up technique aggressively, beginning his tale with a whole series of in medias res plot lines whose relationship to each other is never made explicit, but must instead be inferred gradually over many pages and with significant hard work on the part of the reader. Occasionally, and without preamble, he introduces equally fragmented plot lines giving the backgrounds of other characters. This difficulty invites a variety of interesting and perhaps fruitful misreadings (Wait a minute! How did she get from here to there? Isn't that character already dead? When did these two people meet? Just who was the "I" in that half-page segment?). Adding to the complexity is McDermott's allusive and often metaphorical first person prose—one source of comparison to Gene Wolfe, no doubt. As the book opens, Zhan reminisces:
My fingers are like spiders drifting over my 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.
These lines are as well written as the rest of the novel, and give a legitimate reason for the book's fragmented structure—Zhan's an aging woman, near death and can't be expected to keep things straight. Large portions of the narrator's life, including her rise to power, her marriage, the establishment of the empire over which she presumably rules, even the details of her relationship with Esumi, the lover to whom this entire project in reconstructed memory is dedicated, are almost entirely implicit, matters of elision rather than narration, things to be inferred from the background.
Early in Last Dragon, I found myself often confused, even floundering. If I hadn't been assigned to review the book, I might not have finished it. But I'm very glad I did. McDermott's method is complex and his odd combination of high-literary ambition with what are essentially pulp materials may not appeal to some readers. Still, there's significant power here and it's drawn from both the author's literary and pulp interests. The characters are both intense and bizarre. The cultures likewise. Readers prepared to disregard the fulsome blurbs on the cover and work hard at the text will enjoy this fine first novel.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.