An intricate web of stories weave together to tell a tale of revenge, justice, ambition, and power.
Zhan has been sent to find her grandfather, a man accused of killing not only Zhan’s family, but every man, woman, and child in their village. What she finds is a shell of a man, and a web of deceit that will test the very foundations of a world she thought she understood.
A tale of revenge that grows into something more, Last Dragon is a literary fantasy novel in the tradition of Gene Wolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. J. M. McDermott brings the fantasy genre to new literary heights with a remarkable first novel that reconstructs what you expect from an epic tale.
©2011 Apex Publications (P)2012 Iambik Audio Inc.
“Its call for our participation in assembling a story from the novel’s brief fragments and long silences reminds us why we read, makes plain the interactivity that is at the heart of reading’s entertainment. Last Dragon literalizes our impulse to Story, to construct narratives out of our memories and circumstances” (BSC Book Reviews)
“This fantasy adventure belongs in libraries where literary fantasy in the tradition of Gene Wolf, A.A. Attanasio, and Gabriel García Márquez is popular.” (Library Journal)
I'm a voracious audiobibliophile, mainly interested in speculative fiction, with the occasional mimetic fiction or non-fiction title sneaking in.
Wow. This one quickly vaults into both my favorite fantasy books and audiobooks lists. The book is a disjointed experience, with several timelines bringing out exquisite foreshadowing and a beautiful sense of melancholy, purpose, and atmosphere. At first, the switches between timelines was a bit jarring, but before long I found the rhythm and began to recognize the cues that setting, characters, and events quickly provided. I do not want to say too much about this book other than: listen to it or read it. Zhan is a girl coming of age, leaning to be a hunter in a secondary world of snow, ash, war, and power. What magic there once might have been is largely gone. What gods there are do not seem to listen. Once, dragons lived. But they have all been hunted and killed. So, into this, in a tribal culture, the girl Zhan. Her family is murdered, apparently by her grandfather, and so off on a quest of vengeance into the wider world goes Zhan with her uncle Seth, a fire-breathing shaman. Who can make golems. They meet and hire a mercenary bodyguard; a paladin; a gypsy. They travel through and ahead of the drums of war. It???s just beautiful, menalcholic, a paean to beautiful things and dark things.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
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.
I don't think I would.
not the problem with this book.
The switches in timelines make the story perplexing; I tried but could follow.
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