In Last Dragon, J.M. McDermott strips the fat from the bones of epic quest-driven fantasy, then dresses up the resulting skeleton of story in layer upon layer of fragmented and elliptical narrative. The fit of this literary garb on the somewhat typical fantasy understory isn’t perfect; indeed, when the reading is done we may feel that the clothes have no emperor — or rather, empress, as we shall see.
But the sheer pleasure the novel infuses the process of reading with, the way it trusts readers to engage deeply and carefully, makes Last Dragon a book that may be equally enjoyable to epic fantasy fans looking for something different and challenging, and to readers who enjoy challenges and who had all but given up on epic fantasy’s ability to provide them.
In the most immediate layer of McDermott’s multilayered story, elderly Empress Zhan of the Alamedan Empire lies on her deathbed, writing (and by the end, dictating) her memories as letters to her exiled lover Esumi. This layer of memories, of the role of then-teenage Zhan and her companions in the empire’s birth decades previous, form the bulk of the novel.
And behind Zhan’s tale, in rumor, inference and overheard snatches of conversation, is the story of one of Zhan’s companions: Adel, daughter by birth and by marriage to the dragon-slaying proconsuls of the city-state of Proliux; paladin in service to the Last Dragon of Rhianna, enemy of Proliux; now returned to Proliux after Rhianna’s conquest by the mercenaries of Proliux and the dragon’s death. When young Zhan and her uncle Seth, newly-minted village shaman, travel from their village far in the unmapped North to Proliux on the trail of a murderer, it is their chance meeting with Adel that sets in motion the rise of a world empire and Zhan’s rise as its empress — fueled by Adel’s recognition that Zhan and Seth’s purpose may align with her own.
Adel cocked her head […]. Her empty hand touched a sword tattoo. Justice, then. Law and justice, she said. I think I understand. I hope I do. I will help you. I know how to help with these things. Law and Justice. Touch. A sigh, as long as winter. Law and Justice.
This story in all its layers we must piece together from a highly fragmented narrative. The age and ill health of Empress Zhan send her thoughts skittering across time and place: Zhan’s recounting of meeting Adel for the first time triggers an earlier memory of Zhan meeting her sensei; remembering a conversation between Seth and his lover Korinyes triggers a memory of Zhan’s own lover Esumi. McDermott uses these free associations to make Last Dragon wonderfully organic and human, while still maintaining a controlled narrative thrust by manipulating our need to make Story out of the fragments.
Each memory fragment, each unit of story, is brief, ranging from a few lines to a few pages. By varying the length, the subject matter, and the density of each of these units, like the panel arrangements of a comic book, McDermott brings to the surface the rhythm and pacing found in all good writing. Brief fragments become capable of remarkable emotional power, as when Zhan breaks off her memory of the city of Proliux to write, starkly on a page of its own:
And I was so lonely, Esumi. I cannot tell you the loneliness of cities.
I was so lonely.
And we understand that this may refer equally to both Zhan’s past and to her present circumstances.
Last Dragon relies on the reader to not only put the pieces of story together, but to fill in often crucial missing pieces. Very little is baldly stated. The novel assumes that we know — Esumi as a citizen of his world, we as readers of epic fantasy — what it is to stop at an inn, walk in a medieval city, travel over a mountain pass, to enter a dragon’s cave.
These details of setting are skimmed over. Characterization is oblique, densely conveyed via word and gesture, and must be unpacked, deciphered. This deciphering is crucial because Zhan is not — should not be — certain about several aspects of her account. In these cases, Zhan recounts the evidence she possesses, and allows us to draw our own conclusions based on what understanding we have gleaned of her companions.
With this uncertainty of story, as well as the novel’s fragmentation, its use of a secondary point of view, and with its abiding sense of regret, Last Dragon marks itself as belonging to that millennial class of fiction that deconstructs the category epic fantasy that flooded bookstore shelves in the last decades of the previous century.
What’s unique about Last Dragon is that it deconstructs not through realism, recursion, or irony, but by taking the familiar epic mode seriously as literature, showing how bloated and unfantastic it has become by reducing it via literary technique to the bare essentials. Indeed the book displays a post-modern self-consciousness of what it is doing.
The battle was epic, of course. I shall avoid [describing] it entirely. I do not care for epic battles […]. I have seen far too many of them to think anything of them. They are battles like any other.
Like most genre deconstructions, what Last Dragon does not do is construct anything truly new in place of the deconstructed. There is at times a disconnect between the newness of the post-modern literary techniques used and the relatively straightforward, normalized fantasy story that they conceal. The techniques promise a challenge; the familiarity of the story means that the gaps and uncertainties can be filled with our pre-existing knowledge of epic fantasy tropes, without requiring us to imagine much of anything new.
The challenge of the book is thus closer to the procedural, fill-in-the-blanks challenge of a game like sudoku than the subversive challenge to the imagination that fantasy can imbue Story with. Last Dragon‘s story, like most generic fantasy, still has Justice as its central motif with dramatic parameters along a sliding scale of duty and pragmatism; its journey is still described by a roadmap of fidelity and infidelities (not just marital); the conflict is still one of martial conquest and still between nations treated largely as monocultures, a people tempered by constant conflict and the natural environment versus a more urban techno-economic nation grown overconfident by its conquests; nobles are still universally oily, plotting politicians; the orphan teen does still rise (all unwitting) to a position of authority; the people with the darkest skin still do organize themselves into tribes associated with animals and the pale-skinned people do still conquer the world (although to be fair, McDermott does some interesting things with race: it is the white-skinned people who are the “barbarians,” the brown-skinned the “civilized” — one darker-skinned character looks with pity on pale-skinned Zhan, thinking her a victim of a deformity).
Most of the time, McDermott succeeds in his balancing act of using enough technique to camouflage yet not so much that the act of reading feels artificial. When he falters — particularly towards the book’s end when several new coats of technique are rapidly slapped on — the book feels too much like an exercise in just how obfuscated the standard fantasy story can be made.
The unreliability of Zhan’s narration is established by no fewer than nine different factors in the text: from her fading memory; to a plant the companions burned for warmth that was known to cause odd “demon dreams”; to the belief in the Southern lands that you become that which you kill. Depending on how we read the novel through these filters of uncertainty, the story we search for and in our searching create — the who-did-what-and-for-what-reasons — may take one of several forms (McDermott signals the author’s preferred interpretation through the book’s title). Yet given the choice between these familiar fantasy variants, it doesn’t much matter what the real story is: it is the uncertainty of what the story is that is thought-provoking, not the story itself.
If its story does not linger in the mind for all the reasons we might hope, the written form of Last Dragon certainly brings pleasure to the act of reading for all the right reasons. Its call for our participation in assembling a story from the novel’s brief fragments and long silences reminds us why we read, makes plain the interactivity that is at the heart of reading’s entertainment. Last Dragon literalizes our impulse to Story, to construct narratives out of our memories and circumstances.
It is an easy book to enjoy because there’s so little else like it, because its flaws are largely de rigueur in fantasy while its many good qualities are so uncommon. McDermott may not precisely breathe new life into old bones, but he does animate epic fantasy into a capable golem that will hold the light for us so long as we have the pages open, that we may read.