Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Review: Never Knew Another by J.M. McDermott
Never Knew Another (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is J.M. McDermott’s sophomore effort following up on the critically acclaimed, Last Dragon (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), and the first book in the Dogsland Trilogy. Never Knew Another is not your typical fantasy story – call it literary, new weird, urban, or demon-spawn-punk. It’s the tragic dream of finally meeting someone just like you…poison.
Never Knew Another is the story of two shape-shifting outsiders entering a city to hunt down and destroy the taint of demon-spawn. They are blessed by a religious order and hold all the authority of the monarchy. But the real story is buried within – it’s the tale of how two demon-spawn meet, how they are tormented by what they are and their affects upon others and relieved to find another.
Never Knew Another is told from the point of view of one of the demon hunters, the female shape-shifter who is ‘feeling’ the story through the remains of dead demon-spawn. This story within a story allows McDermott to get a bit meta as the narrator is admittedly not (necessarily) reliable in the feelings she gets through these remains. In this deeper story, the book mostly explores the idea of being a completely isolated individual. The demon-spawn literally cannot get close to people and they are so rare that they are very unlikely to ever meet one like themselves. And even though the temptation is to apply this metaphor to some ostracized portion of society, it doesn’t hold up well – the demons and demon-children are clearly infected with pure evil. Their blood, sweat and tears are acid, people who touch them get sick and can eventually die – essentially everything they touch becomes infected to some degree. But they are also innocent creatures struggling to live and love, lending a real tragic feel to it all.
Never Knew Another is described by McDermott as literary fantasy, which is no surprise for those familiar with McDermott’s writing. The prose is dense, poetic and dream-like. Think of McKillips, but darker and more depressing. However, it’s hard to call it a depressing story – it’s simply too dream-like, too surreal to truly be depressing, in spite of being far from uplifting or happy.
The book description almost reads like two star-crossed lovers meeting, but the love story is actually a very small part of it. It's there, but this is no romance. Or maybe the 'love' story is everything. Think of two people who have been completely isolated their entire lives, who are different from all other people, who literally cannot be close to others because it will kill them. They are drawn to one another because they are the same, they have lived the same challenges, faced the same problems. They can actually talk about themselves with someone who could understand. They can be physically intimate with someone without literal death and destruction resulting (though the physical intimacy is only implied rather than explicitly shown). It's not love and isn't really portrayed as love. It's both more and less.
And everything is shown through a ghostly, dream-like view of the woman who is hunting these demon-children to kill them, burn their remains and burn essentially everything and everyone they have ever touched.
In terms of a traditional conclusion or climax there is none. A good argument could be made for a thematic conclusion/climax or at least major shift, but largely it's unresolved. I think this trilogy will read like three volumes in one book, rather than three books that make a trilogy.
Someone on a book forum saw my description of the book’s style and said something to the effect of ‘so I take it that you really liked it’. My reaction to this was ‘did I?’ I certainly appreciate the style and the way it’s done – it's really quite spectacular. But if I'm truly honest, it's not exactly my cup of tea. But Never Knew Another is one of those books that stuck with me for quite some time after I finished. Is it the tragedy? Is it the interesting view of civilization? Is it love and evil? Is it my wondering just what McDermott is trying to say with it? I really don’t know, but when a book haunts me in such a way it’s a rare and powerful thing. 8/10