Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott: Best First Novel of the Year, or Just One of the Best, Period?

Jeff VanderMeer • January 21st, 2008 @ 9:06 am • Book Reviews

J.M. McDermott’s first novel, Last Dragon, is coming out in February from Wizards of the Coast, part of their new Discoveries series. This is part of what I wrote in a forthcoming Realms of Fantasy review of the book:

“Relentless, dark, and dangerous…A rare kind of clarity inhabits McDermott’s prose through the character of Zhan and the entire novel is a breath of fresh air in the sometimes moldy room that is traditional fantasy fiction. I’m not prepared to say that this novel is a work of genius, but comparisons to Gene Wolfe, in particular, are well-earned and I would not be surprised to see this novel on finalist lists come awards time.”

As Library Journal wrote: “A journey focused on revenge becomes an odyssey of self-discovery and of the founding of an empire in blood and sacrifice. As Zhan searches for her grandfather, a creature no longer human that has killed his entire village, she travels in the company of Seth, a fire-breathing shaman; Korinyes, a gypsy who is more than she seems; and Adel, a paladin present at the slaying of the last dragon. McDermott’s debut novel requires careful reading to piece together a story told in nonlinear form, as mercurial as memories and as visceral as death. This fantasy adventure belongs in libraries where literary fantasy in the tradition of Gene Wolfe, A.A. Attanasio, and Gabriel García Márquez is popular.”

I really loved this novel because it reads like fantasy for adults, because it contains wonderful invention to it, such as its take on golems, and because it is extraordinarily like looking in on an alien place–something we don’t get much in fantasy. We tend to get echoes or reflections that while they may be entertaining, may indeed be deep, still seem familiar. Familiar is good sometimes, but the strange is also something fantasy readers look for, I think, and Last Dragon delivers that. (Not to mention, that it’s a very interesting take on swords-and-sorcery.)

The novel also solves a potential problem in terms of that horrible word “difficult,” somewhat mistakenly invoked without being said in the Library Journal review–as in, “this might be difficult for some readers” (which I always think of as a way of saying, “Hey, readers–we think you might be a little ‘tarded, so we’re giving you this here warning…”). Last Dragon has a strong literary voice, but is told in short chapters. This structural decision allows Last Dragon to have relatively fast pacing while not sacrificing its literary or stylistic depth. I also somewhat regret invoking Gene Wolfe in my review, because although there is something in the prose that reminds me of Shadow of the Torturer, McDermott is much more directly muscular, whether describing barbarians or how to defend against arquebuses.

I won’t say the book is without flaws–sometimes the chapters are too fractured, sometimes the prose does become slightly overheated (although, in the context in which this occurs, it seems justified most of the time). But the novel’s brain, its heart, and its passion more than make up for this. I honestly think readers who like both literary and traditional fantasy should enjoy this book–if they give it a chance.

Why do I say “if they give it a chance”? As always, too many reviewers have certain blueprints in their heads of what they should enjoy and of what is worthy, and if it doesn’t fit that, it isn’t a flaw in their heads–it’s a flaw in the book. This is the kind of novel that is likely to get some negative reviews for that reason. (Thus my overheated title to this entry–just to get your attention…)

14 Responses to “Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott: Best First Novel of the Year, or Just One of the Best, Period?”

  1. Larry says:

    Speaking of titles, maybe “Sui Generis, Best of Its Kind” would be even more suitable/disingenuous? ;) This is one that I’ve heard some mixed reviews about (with, as you point out above, a lot of the attention on the Wolfe and García Márquez comparisons in the blurb) but am curious about nonetheless, perhaps due to those mixed reviews themselves.

    When you say the chapters are “fractured,” is that in the sense of them ending abruptly and with little in the way of transition to the next chapter, or is it more a case of the narrative voice(s) stuttering and going herky-jerky from chapter to chapter?

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    it’s more that the chapters are short and some are just brief haiku-like moments in time. it’s not always linear, either.

    The Marquez thing seems like an odd comparison in some ways.

    jv

  3. J M McDermott says:

    When one’s heroes become one’s fans, the coolness of one’s life increases in ways difficult to conceive until such event occurs.

    Thank you, Jeff, for all your help and support!

    I sure hope I can live up to your endorsement!

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Well, thanks for giving me such a unique reading experience! It’s really wonderful to pick up something by someone you know nothing about and be blown away.
    JV

  5. Larry says:

    Well, I’m far from one who’s going to shy away from non-linear writing that might read like Zen koans, so if I can get a review copy from the publisher, I might read and review this soon rather than later, because I’m curious, something that isn’t always the case with me these days.

  6. Jackie Kessler says:

    I can’t wait to read this book.

  7. James says:

    It certainly sounds intriguing, although I do have to mention that the title doesn’t seem to capture the tone very well. Perhaps if I’d read the book I’d find it perfectly apt, but The Last Dragon sounds like something designed to appeal to people who aren’t looking for challenging, complex fantasy.

  8. JeffVanderMeer says:

    Last Dragon. Not The Last Dragon. But I do agree. I’m not sure what the title could’ve been, though.
    JV

  9. Upsalafandom » NÃ¥gra nya böcker says:

    [...] flesta recensioner jag stött på låter det som om McDermott faktiskt har lyckats. Jeff VanderMeer frågar sig om vi i denna bok redan har fått årets bästa debutroman, Paul Witcover prisar McDermotts [...]

  10. The Postman (3) « ÃŽnsemnări din colÅ£u’ hărÅ£ii says:

    [...] să-i facă, după bunul său obicei de samaritean, toată publicitatea posibilă. A început cu o recenzie, a urmat un interviu pe Amazon.com (o fi apărut deja? eu l-am citit, lucky me, în avans), ambele [...]

  11. Cheryl’s Mewsings » Blog Archive » Last Dragon says:

    [...] 29th, 2008 by Cheryl I bought this book because Jeff VanderMeer had been enthusing about it. I don’t always agree with Jeff on books, but I do more often than not, and I can guarantee [...]

  12. Marshall Bellville says:

    This publish is bang around the funds, so much so I just tweeted it to my friends.

  13. 2000 Dragon says:

    What can I say. I do like the sight of Gold, specially gold coins such as Mexican Gold Libertad but also Lunar Coins espcecially Snake coin and dont forget Canadian Maple Leaf and Gold Nugget from Australia

  14. Listening Report: May 2012 | The AudioBookaneers says:

    [...] They travel through and ahead of the drums of war. It’s just beautiful. Go read it. (Here’s another review of the book when it was first published in 2008. Yeah. Go read [...]

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