Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Last Dragon

Last Dragon by J. M. McDermott
Wizards of the West, 390 pp, $14.95

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. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth's face, and the face of the golem.

J. M. McDermott’s maiden writing effort opens with these haunting lines and grips the reader from the get-go and never lets up. Styled as a series of letters from the dying empress Zhan to her erstwhile lover, the book weaves back and forth through Zhan’s life as she reminisces about the past to an unresponsive Esumi.

Zhan belongs to a family of shamans, and is separated from her family to train as a warrior once she attains puberty - a fate that she cannot wiggle her way out of, being that she is a second born, and has just started bleeding. Just when she is reconciled to her new warrior life under a ruthless sensei, a messenger arrives at her place of training with word that her entire family has been slaughtered by her grandfather. The only person her grandfather has spared is her uncle Seth, presumably because he is her grandfather’s only true offspring. Once again, Zhan is forced to leave the surroundings she is most comfortable in, but this time, revenge spurs her to action. She hooks up with Adel, a deformed mercenary character who has her own agenda in helping the lead protagonist plot her revenge. She locates Seth, the lone survivor from the patriarch’s bloodletting, and his girlfriend Korinyes and they too join Zhan in her quest. The rag-tag army is accompanied by the grandfather’s golem, a creature that inhabits the nether state between the living and the dead. With help from the golem, they retrace her grandfather’s steps through each of the sites of his carnage, till Zhan comes face to face with the true betrayal of her life – the truth was never as simple as it appeared to be.

Epistolary formats abound in literature, and first-second person exchanges usually feel clunky and contrived in most authors’ hands. Not so in this case, where McDermott manages a stylistic breakthrough of sorts. Chapters are rarely more than two to three pages in length, with plenty of white spaces thrown in, mirroring the bleak snowy landscape through which Zhan and her cohorts labor. Bare-bones descriptions – city sounds, milkweed burning, baking bread – combine with astute observations to create a paradoxically pared down yet sensually lush experience. The result is surprisingly literary. Savor this paragraph for instance:

I found new places each night, but all the faces seemed too much the same for me. All of them brown, with high cheeks and slender eyes… No words like songbirds. Only the purring and clicking of Proliux. That language sounds like cats dying slowly. I thought in words like crickets and bird, and only the pigeons spoke to me their two long notes. Coo hoo… Don’t go…

The light lushness of this book brings to mind Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - not only in a broad thematic sense of honor, betrayal and revenge, but also in the dreamy litheness of McDermott’s words. I would really not be surprised if this book, so ripe with filmic potential, gets optioned to be made into a film. The erratic shuffling between present action and past events makes for some confusing moments, but again, that stylistic decision of the author makes sense when you remember that the main protagonist of this book is a dying empress, slowly losing her grip on reality even as she pines for her lover. I went back and re-read the first third of the book again to make more sense once I had a firm handle on what happened in the end, but it was equally to indulge in the deliciousness of the writer’s prose.

To classify this book a work of fantasy and relegate it to the sci-fi racks of a library or a bookstore almost feels like a disservice to the many readers who would never peruse those aisles (full disclosure: this reviewer is one of them). In fact, it was serendipity that drew me to the cover art of this book on the new arrivals rack. The opening paragraph just reeled me in and I ignored the garish stickers on the side of book announcing “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy”. For the first time in my life, am I glad I judged a book by its cover (art)?

Rating: 4

(Review crossposted on LibraryThing)

1 comment:

J M McDermott said...

I'm hardly alone in what I do. 'Tis a shame "literary fiction" has no idea the high literary Renaissance happening these last few years over in my corner of the bookstore.

I do strongly suggest the work of Catheryn Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, and Jeffrey Ford, just to name three of dozens and dozens and dozens.

Thanks for the review! I've linked you in my sidebar.