Review: Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott
Monday, July 14, 2008
Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott
"Last Dragon", published as the first of the Wizard of the Coast Discoveries, is like no Fantasy novel I've ever read. It's non-linear, told as a series of letters? reminiscences? campfire tales? that flit about events and times yet slowly and inexorably bring the reader to the book's conclusion.
To sum up the principal narrative, primary narrator Zahn is on the verge of qualifying as a Rider, a warrior who fights on bison-back, when news comes that her putative grandfather has murdered her mother and all her illegitimate siblings, plus the village shaman. Now Zahn cannot be a Rider; she must follow the shaman's path, instead. But first, she and her uncle Seth must hunt down her grandfather, and exact retribution. She and Seth travel to distant Proliux, where they are separated. Only when Zahn falls in with heretic paladin Adel does she make progress towards her goal. But mercenary forces threaten Zahn's homeland, and perhaps only she and Adel can save it.
Yet when we first meet Zahn, she is an old woman, looking back on her life and grieving for her lost lover, Esumi, and her murdered child. History, it seems, has repeated itself.
It's a sad tale, littered with betrayals, and at the same time uncompromising. No convenient explanations are offered for what sometimes seems inexplicable--what was Adel's motive, after all? Perhaps Zahn and her quest take the place of the lost dragon to whom Adel previously gave her allegiance, but if that's so, the novel isn't going to give up the information easily. This is a book that demands to be read, pondered, and re-read, if it's to be understood by the reader.
One barrier, for me, to engaging with the narrative was that when it changes time and/or place, it makes no overt attempt to clue the reader in. Given the book's told in a lot of short snippets, some only a couple of pages long, some less than a page, this means the reader is constantly jarred by the need to work out where they are and what's going on. This choppiness leads to disengagement, and also means that important information at the beginnings of scenes is lost in the struggle. Further, when the book changes narrators, it doesn't change voice. Towards the middle, it's hard to know if it's Zahn talking to us, or Fest, a mercenary who joins her crew. The overall effect is a bit like trying to understand a radio play when someone--without any warning--keeps switching the channels.
This book will reward the reader who seeks not immersion in the fictive dream, but the challenge of putting together a disjointed narrative into a text that has meaning for them.
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