J.M. McDermott’s debut Last Dragon is one of the books published under the new Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint. Discoveries includes novels by new authors in all types of speculative fiction instead of just epic fantasy with settings outside of the Forgotten Realms universe. The goal is to publish more mature fiction that appeals to adult readers instead of the simplistic but fun stories that often end up getting adolescents hooked on reading fantasy. Far more original and artistic than the typical Wizards of the Coast book, Last Dragon succeeds at meeting this standard, though it is not flawless.
Last Dragon is the fragmented memories of the dying empress Zhan. She reminisces about the creation of her empire via letters to her former lover Esumi, removed from her by the emperor after they had a child together. As a young woman, Zhan trained to be a warrior as all second children in a family did. On the night Zhan was to officially become a full-fledged member of the rider tribe, a messenger arrived with the news that Zhan’s entire family except for an uncle had been murdered by her grandfather. The young woman’s dreams of battle are shattered since duty means she must leave to avenge her family’s death and become the apprentice of her remaining relative, who is a shaman.
Zhan and her uncle Seth journey south to find and kill their kinsman. Once there, Zhan meets the elderly paladin Adel, who served the last dragon before it died. Adel joins Zhan and Seth, along with a mercenary and Seth’s new gypsy girlfriend, and is instrumental in forging the new empire. Zhan recalls that Adel was a hero who inspired many skald songs but she is not sure if Adel was actually their savior or not.
Plot is not the point of this novel – its highlight is lovely, descriptive prose that creates a strong sense of atmosphere and evokes emotion. Events do not occur in chronological order but are recounted in a free association style. Zhan will briefly refer to something that happened in one of her memories, then she will recount the details of that event. After this, she may go back to the previous remembrance or it may remind her of something else that she writes about next. At times, this can get confusing, and due to this, Last Dragon would probably make more sense on a reread. It’s not very difficult to get the general idea but since some characters are introduced before the time and place they are in is revealed, a second reading would be helpful for tying all the pieces together.
The entire story is told in short chunks of text, some of which are just a couple of lines long or a single paragraph. The longest passages are about 3 pages long, making this book shorter than it looks. This method of storytelling adds to the sense of atmosphere and gives the feeling that you are actually reading a letter or journal.
The main flaws with this novel were that it dragged a little about 2/3 of the way in and at times it seemed a bit repetitive. The repetition seemed fitting since I got the impression Zhan was getting worse as time went on and perhaps a bit delirious, but it did not make the book more interesting to read.
The characters were interesting and being in Zhan’s head gave a very clear sense of her harshest memories. Other characters were not as fleshed out since they were seen through the eyes of the empress who certainly was not an omniscient narrator. Yet at times Zhan summarized them simply and with great clarity, as in the following passage:
This woman was Adel. Esumi, You have heard of her, from all the skalds’ songs and the rumors that have spread in the decades. I place no stock in most of them, but I know two rumors to be true. She was one of the greatest paladins once, before the fall, and love ruined her, twice.
In this literary fantasy, J.M. McDermott superbly captures emotions and a wonderful sense of atmosphere with florid, descriptive writing. It does get a bit redundant after a while, and those looking for a book with a strong plot or lots of action will definitely want to look elsewhere, but Last Dragon is certainly more unique than the typical fantasy.
More information on Last Dragon (including a sample chapter)