Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ex Libris: JM McDermott's Last Dragon

How would one characterize JM McDermott's surreal epic fantasy Last Dragon? Undoubtedly a hard question to ask. Even as I try to formulate this book review, my mind skitters away from such an idea-- the book itself defies easy categorization. But let's try from the beginning.

Zhan is an old, old empress narrating her story to a lover gone. But she was also once a young girl sent out to track down her grandfather for killing not only her family but everyone in her village. Together with her uncle, Seth, a priest-shaman of their village, they travel to the city of Prolieux where they meet up with Adel, a former paladin for the now-dead last dragon of the world. It is in Prolieux that they find their destiny as an impending invasion threatens Zhan's and Seth's homeland because of an old man's vengeful whim.

As far as the story goes, that's the gist of it without giving too much away. In a way, McDermott has written a typical quest/epic fantasy story with a group of companions journeying to a certain place to find an evil man. But from the wireframes of the story hangs McDermott's experiments of such an idea, ranging from tropes to the form of the story. You could say McDermott's first book is his laboratory.

For example, like in Gene Wolfe's opus The Wizard-Knight wherein he used the first-person narrative to full effect, McDermott does the same. Wolfe shows how truly a first person narrates a story even while writing it down, i.e. it is never truly a simple, straightforward narration with Wolfe's protagonist sometimes unclear in his decisions or untrue to himself. McDermott uses this same technique but adds digressions, sidetracks, etc. such that at times Zhan-- her memory fading-- is relating two or three stories-- how she first met Adel, their journey to Ilhota, and hints of the rise of their bloody empire-- all at the same time.

Likewise, McDermott uses the tropes and twists it a bit to show a different faceted picture (but admittedly not by much). The companions are a irregular bunch: Zhan is the more-than capable youngster who later becomes a ruler through marriage; Seth is the 'wizard' but admittedly more rogue and less responsible than his book forebears; Adel is the 'knight', possibly the titular "last dragon" of the title with her scars and claims of honor. However, as archetypes go, they're still thin in characterization, something I think McDermott couldn't help given the parameters, i.e. they have to be recognizable as such- and such- archetypes despite the changes.

Moreover, the world-building in this fantasy-- a landmark in any epic fantasy-- isn't much, i.e. the names of characters and places don't match while the background seems to be more like interchangeable early Hollywood sets. In terms of story, the ending is abrupt and leaves so many questions unanswered, the hints which Zhan leaves throughout the story: the rise of their empire, her marriage to Count Tsui who would later become emperor. This is probably because though this is Zhan's narration, this is actually Adel's story as viewed through Zhan's eyes. Another one of McDermott's experimentation? That would be my guess.

All in all, this book is a strange duck and I'm afraid not all fantasy-lovers will enjoy this offering by McDermott. For myself, I like it for the chances McDermott took with the story, whether the narrative, the form or even the tropes. And though he fails as much as he succeeds with his experiments, the overall reading experience for me was worth every moment of it. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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