Jason's Reviews > Last Dragon

Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott
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's review
Feb 06, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: fiction, fantasy

Much like the story itself, it's a little hard to find the beginning of a review on this book. There were a lot of things I liked very much about this novel, the author's first, which succeeds for the most part in implementing some very difficult storytelling techniques. Overall, though, I felt it reads more like the work of a very talented amateur than a professional author.

The novel is told non-chronologically, in the form of letters written by the dying narrator, Zhan, to her once-lover Esumi. As such, the ordering of scenes and events is more intuitive than logical; it appears the narrator is jumping from one memory to another as her mind associates images, places, and words. The effect is reminiscent of such works as Joseph Heller's Catch-22 or Gene Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun. In fact, I would be unsurprised if the author has read his fair share of Gene Wolfe: the narrative experimentation and the need for the reader to actively assemble the story in his or her own mind remind me of some of Wolfe's best works. It's a difficult trick to pull off, but McDermott succeeds... mostly. Before too long into the novel, the reader is given enough information to piece together a rough chronology; at least, the author is fairly clear about letting you know whether or not a given scene takes place before, during, or after the "current" point in the narrative. Unfortunately, this effect seems to taper off towards the end, as the story becomes much more linear in the last quarter or so of the novel.

The plot itself is interesting, though not exceptional. It combines elements of a coming-of-age tale, revenge, justice, travelogue, and politics in some rather unique ways. I'd have much preferred, however, if the author had focused more on the interplay between these themes than on the fractured narrative structure, which, although interesting, can't entirely sustain the novel. I also found the ending somewhat dissatisfying: given that the reader in large part knows the outcome from the beginning, it would have been nice if the climactic moments had been presented in some new or unexpected way. Instead, the story builds to a climax that never comes, instead quickly glossing over those final events and leaving me, at least, feeling slightly cheated out of a proper ending.

The characters are effective for the most part, though some seem to be largely unnecessary. I enjoyed the fact that we are given glimpses of several of the characters long before we actually "meet" them in the story. It gives a haunting effect, as of faces half-glimpsed through fog. On the one hand, the characters seem one-dimensional at times; on the other hand, their motivations are clear and understandable. The only exception to this is the character Adel, who the narrator never fully understood. I don't think enough information is given to truly grasp this character, and she's left as an unsatisfying question mark. The work would have been much stronger if the author had paid more attention to Adel, who is arguably the main character of the novel. (As an aside, she may also be the title character, if I'm understanding a very oblique reference mentioned in one scene. Then again, I may simply be reading too much into it. Otherwise, the title doesn't seem to relate much to the content of the story at all.) In the end, it seems as if the author can't decide whether he's more interested in Zhan or Adel, and as a result neither gets the full treatment she deserves.

The prose is, for the most part, well crafted. The narrator writes in a clipped, matter-of-fact style, with short declarative sentences being the norm. This does begin to sound repetitive after a while, but the author clearly made some attempt to vary the style while keeping the narrative voice. After a while, I noticed the clipped writing less and less, though the narrative voice was still quite clear. The descriptions are quite good when they appear, often evoking vivid, detailed imagery. I would have preferred more detail be given about the settings, especially the city of Proliux. It's supposed to be completely alien to Zhan, unlike anything she's ever experienced before, but the lack of detailed description renders it, in my mind at least, as "generic big foreign city." A few telltale glimpses of the architecture or the customs would have gone a long way toward building a strong setting, especially given the author's skill with descriptive prose.

My biggest critique of the novel, however, lies in the level of individual words, especially names. Names, perhaps more than anything else, are the key to establishing a consistent sense of place and culture. This is especially true in fantasy literature (it is, perhaps, unfair to invoke Tolkien here, so I'll let that pass), though one doesn't have to leave the real world to find this phenomenon. Consider these: John, Brian, Lancaster; Akiko, Yoshinori, Saijo; Mbwana, Jumaane, Shangani. Each is consistent in sounds and structure, and evokes a very specific kind of image in the mind. By contrast, the names in Last Dragon don't seem to adhere to any specific pattern. For example, the following are all supposed to be from the same culture: Zhan, Seth, Tsui, Alameda, Bear, Ilhota (not to mention that Zhan uses both the words "skald" and "sensei" to describe roles within her land). Reading the acknowledgements gives a clue as to why the names are so disjointed, but even so, I found it to deeply break the sense of immersion in the novel (though I won't deny allegations that I'm overly language-focused in general).

Overall, I'd say this is a good book, and well worth reading if you're a fantasy fan. The reason I criticize it so much (perhaps too much) is because I feel that it could have been a top bestseller with a little more polish. Even so, McDermott is a highly promising young voice in the fantasy genre, if this debut novel is any indication. I look forward to following what I hope will be a long and successful career for him.
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