Surprise! There Are No Dragons
Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott
Have you ever watched a movie late at night while dozing off? As you alternate between falling asleep and waking up, the film begins to seep into your dreams, and you struggle to make sense of what you’ve seen. Some of the pieces fall neatly together, while others seem out of place. It’s hard to tell the differences between your waking reality and your dream-time experiences, as each becomes more twisted and conjoined. Things become fragmented and confusing, but somewhat alluring, and while this situation may not make for the most optimum viewing, it creates a memorable experience that haunts you for days.
Reading J.M. McDermott’s first novel, Last Dragon, is like this. And it is a fantastic experience.
Last Dragon is about a warrior-woman named Zhan. The story is told through her fractured memories while she is lying on her death bed. Some things she remembers clearly, while other memories are mere shadows of the actual events. Her recollections are all jumbled up, rarely in chronological order, and her mind bounces from moment to the next, sometimes with clear transitions, and other times with jarring juxtapositions.
“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. Even you. Even me.”
And so begins Zhan’s tale, a quest to kill her family’s murderer that metamorphoses into a journey in which the well-being of an entire nation hangs in the balance. Joining Zhan are her brother Seth, a shaman; Adel, a paladin of the Last Dragon; Korinyes, a Gypsy woman and Seth’s love; Fest, a black-skinned mercenary with sharpened teeth; Prince Tsui, a politician in hiding; and a hideous golem created during a strange magical ritual.
McDermott presents to his readers a puzzle – one that is not clearly defined, one with odd pieces that don’t always fit. And while reading this may sound like more effort than a work of genre fiction deserves, I assure you that it is totally worthy. This is a narrative that thrives upon its relatively experimental nature, but for all of its risk-taking it is surprisingly captivating and easy to follow. Last Dragon does so much right that it is nearly impossible for me to describe its accomplishments with any amount of brevity. It is easier, perhaps, to list some things this book is not:
1. It is not the first book in an epic, seemingly-never-ending fantasy series.
2. It is not a typical quest narrative, even though there is a quest at the core of story.
3. The characters are not part of a typical party. Yes there is a party of characters, but McDermott does not follow the tried-and-true archetypes all too often detailed in the genre.
4. There are no elves, fairies, dwarves, or dragons.
5. While it does deal with the politics of a make-believe world, it is neither a king-and-court novel, nor is it a book infatuated with its own world-building.
These five items are all things that I’ve encountered far too many times when dealing with the fantasy genre. I used to be a big fan of these Tolkienesque yarns, but it seems as though I have outgrown them; I have moved on while the majority of these stories have remained the same.
However, I didn’t just love Last Dragon for the things it is not — on the contrary, I never gave much thought to these things while reading it. McDermott does such an amazing job at creating his world and telling his tale, that it felt like I was reading a fantasy for the first time. It was like being reintroduced to a long lost friend, one who I had been secretly longing to meet again. I read Last Dragon with a perpetual smile on my face, constantly amazed at McDermott’s ability to eschew convention and tell a powerful story full of action, adventure, and emotion.
I wish that I had read this in the dead of winter, perhaps in a single sitting or two during a bitter-cold and rainy weekend. Not that it needs perfect reading conditions, but I can imagine how much more these atmospheric embellishments would add. McDermott’s book consumed me – I couldn’t read it fast enough, and yet I didn’t want it to end. Zhan’s tale is tragic, and her voice rings with genuine emotion. I truly felt as though I were experiencing the memories of a woman on her deathbed, a woman who had lived an extraordinary and challenging life – a life worth reading about.
I cannot recommend this book enough, but I do so with some trepidation. It is always a little scary to like a book so much and to recommend it so enthusiastically. I consider this the new bellwether of pure fantasy fiction, and I would hope that everyone who reads it feels the same. I would hate for someone to read this and not love it; it is just too good, and I like it far too much.
From what I gather, it has not sold very well, and this is upsetting. As I look across the shelves of the fantasy sections at the local bookstores, I can’t help but notice the plethora of clichéd fantasy fiction, books often a part of some never-ending series, books with me-too covers depicting tired old tropes of the genre. If you’ve read a fantasy book in the last year, or if you’ve outgrown the genre as I thought I had (or even refuse to give it a second glance), do yourself a favor and buy this book. Do the author a favor and buy this book. Do the publisher a favor and buy this book – send them a message. Do me a favor and buy this book. It is just too damn good to miss.