Friday, November 21, 2008

JD's Take: Last Dragon (J.M. McDermott)

Framed as letters written by an old woman days away from death, her mind fragmented and jagged and brittle, her lungs full of blood, her hands palsied and pale, Last Dragon tells a story that will leave you cold inside, and sad... and somehow better.

There are two stories being told in these letters. The first is the obvious one. It's an adventure tale, with journeys and battles and fabulous sights and death. It's a tale of friendship and betrayal and all of the things that make up a fantasy novel. It's also none of those things. Our narrator feels to us as real and as fragile as any person I have known. She tells of her youthful adventure looking back, and the things that matter to her now as she lies dying are not what authors, even ones striving for realism, feel the need to tell us. Her story is told in circles, in fits and starts. She circles around the most crucial moments probing them gently, like a healing wound, before finally summoning the courage to recall, as best she can, the moments that defined her life. Moments of pain, or shame, or crippling doubt. While she does so, she tells of the trivial moments that caught, as she says, in the web of her memory. Emotional impressions, glances, words between friends before sleep. She jumps around in time as she tells the tale, and her memories are not always consistent or clear. She tells us of things that she didn't see as if she did, tells them as she imagines or as she was told or how she dreamt them to be.

She doesn't tell us the story start to end because that is not the story she's trying to tell. The second story is the story of her life after the events in letters she is writing, a story of pain that lasts a lifetime, of love and betrayals and journeys and marriages and empires and children and all the things that make up fantasy novels. This story isn't told, it's alluded to. It forms itself in our minds as we read her letters, the tragedy of her life, the pain of her decisions. It's a story that features very few of the people she knew in the first story. Its major players never get screen time and its passions go unresolved, but its poignancy is what we will remember, long after the details of her first story fade into the web of our memories.

Oh, and there's a third story in there as well. A brief and beautiful and sad exchange towards the end of the book that, uniquely, takes place in the writer's present. I'm not sure why, but it might have been my favorite part of the book.

This isn't a tale of adventure. It isn't a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense... you'll get no catharsis as you turn the last page. It won't inspire you, your pulse won't race, your mind will not turn contemplating the subtleties of the schemes. The end won't surprise you, the action won't thrill you, the sex won't titillate you.

This is the best book I've read in years. It isn't my favorite, but it is the best.

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