Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott

Last Dragon, the debut novel from J.M. McDermott, is a visceral, magical, and at times indefinable, experience.
At first glance, the “plot” (in quotes because the story is only marginally concerned with it) is simple enough: Zhan, a warrior-in-training from the north land of Alameda, discovers that her grandfather has savagely murdered her entire family, excluding her Uncle Seth, a shaman; Zhan journeys south with Seth to bring her grandfather to justice. However, Last Dragon’s nonlinear structure—relying on the beauty of a mosaic, a constant folding in on itself—and Zhan’s unreliable narrating create tension making an otherwise formulaic fantasy story sizzle.
The story is recounted through a series of vignettes written by an imprisoned Zhan, as morbid love letters to Esumi, her former lover. How and why Zhan is imprisoned is important and the revelation unexpected; however, what’s strange about it is the incident that led to her imprisonment takes place outside the events contained in Last Dragon. Regardless, the animosity toward and—contradictory—pleading for Esumi to respond to her letters adds complexity to Zhan’s character early on: “Esumi, you have promised me forever, too. Where are you now? You choose an empire over your own heart. This pain I endure every day, where you are missing, is more painful than any cough.” And later: “Should I tell you anything? You who does not write to me. You do not speak to me. You whom I love. You, my love.”
There are several beginnings to Last Dragon, but McDermott has chosen to begin with Zhan in the southern city of Proliux, already having been separated from Seth. Zhan lives on the streets, searching in vain for her grandfather. Here, she meets Adel—a well-connected woman with a dubious past, who was once a paladin of the last dragons. Sympathetic to the young Zhan’s cause, Adel agrees to help her find her uncle and grandfather.
The story then folds back on itself, beginning again with Zhan and Seth as they travel south through the forests and hard lands of Alameda. Eventually, they find passage on a ship heading south to Proliux. Because Zhan was training to become one of the warrior-women of her people, she must rely on Seth’s recollections of how her grandfather had murdered her village. But Seth is a moody shaman and mostly silent on the matter, instead keeping to himself. Indeed, as they reach their destination, Seth intentionally loses Zhan in the crowded docks. With Adel’s help, however, Zhan eventually finds Seth living with Staf Sru Korinyes the gypsy.
It is rumored that Zhan’s grandfather may live under the protection of a Proconsul, one of the city’s leaders. Adel, having once been married to such a Proconsul, is able to get Zhan and Seth an appointment, to see that justice is done. Korinyes, a suspicious woman by nature, believes Adel may have other motives in play here. Regardless, Zhan seems to trust the paladin implicitly. However, Korinyes’s suspicions are not far off.
The Proconsuls have hired mercenaries to invade northern Alameda and conquer it for Proliux. Knowing this, Zhan and her small troupe journey north, managing to stay one step ahead of the encroaching armies, hoping to make contact with Prince Tsuin, the one who might be able to stave off invasion. If there is a flaw in this tale, it’s here: the motivations behind conquering a cold, hard land are never satisfactorily explained, except that conquering lands is what empires do.
Along the way, in the frozen north, Adel relates to Zhan the last moments of the last dragon: “His wings were cobwebbed with war wounds, and I don’t think he could fly anymore.” She also tells Zhan that “dragons live a long time because when they eat a person they acquire the life of the person. They never eat evil, or feebleminded things.” This conversation between Adel and Zhan is crucial to the story because it also asks the question: who is the dragon and who is the ant? Who eats whom?
Last Dragon moves around and beyond and around Zhan’s encounter with her grandfather. This, like the conversation about dragons, is a heavy experience, and one that shapes Zhan thereafter. Yet, the telling of it is difficult. As she explains, “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.” As two or three plot threads knot together, a new thread (or two) unravels. This process of knotting and unraveling is continuous throughout Last Dragon, so much so that even the end of the story is also a beginning.
In other words, Last Dragon requires a healthy amount of focus from the reader. This is not something that should deter; rather, a concentrated reading rewards the reader with deeper insights into Zhan’s motivations as her world changes around her. Make no mistake: McDermott’s gorgeously poetic prose is most certainly compelling, though some might deem this a “difficult” novel. The only thing difficult about it is that every sentence, every word, carries weight. Though it may, in some instances, rely on fantasy tropes (read: dragons and magic and smelly cities and epic quests), this cannot be stressed enough: Last Dragon is foremost a reading experience and, if engaged with appropriately, an entertaining one too. Recommended.

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