Tuesday, January 18, 2011

“Never Knew Another” by J.M. McDermott (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official J.M. McDermott Blog
Order “Never Knew AnotherHERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: J.M. McDermott is the author of numerous short fiction and the critically-acclaimed debut novel, Last Dragon, which was shortlisted for an IAFA William Crawford Award and included on Amazon.com’s list for Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2008. Last Dragon will be reprinted in early 2011 by Apex Publications who will also publish McDermott’s next novel, Maze, in Spring 2011.

PLOT SUMMARY: When Walkers discover the corpse of a demon’s child—a city guard of noble blood named Jona—the memories of the deceased lead the Walkers to the city they call Dogsland. There, the Walkers use Corporal Jona’s memories to learn about how he kept his demon heritage a secret, the places he frequented, and the people he associated with including Rachel Nolander, a newcomer to the city who lives in constant fear that someone will one day discover that she is the child of a demon. Unfortunately, the Walkers also learn of another demon’s child on the loose—one who cannot be found—and the Night King who may pose an even greater threat than the spawn of demons...

FORMAT/INFO: Never Knew Another is 240 pages long divided over eighteen Roman-numbered chapters. Narration alternates between the first-person POV of a nameless female Walker and the third-person POVs of Corporal Jona and Rachel Nolander. Never Knew Another is the first volume in the Dogsland Trilogy, with the book coming to an abrupt ending that leaves many matters unresolved.

February 2011 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of J. M. McDermott’s Never Knew Another via Night Shade Books. Cover art is provided by Julien Alday.

ANALYSIS: J.M. McDermott first came to my attention through the short-lived Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint, which published the author’s debut, Last Dragon, in 2008. While I never did get around to reading Last Dragon, I was impressed by what other people had to say about the novel. So when I heard Night Shade Books was publishing a new fantasy trilogy by the author, I was immediately intrigued...

The concept behind Never Knew Another, the opening volume in the Dogsland Trilogy, is a fairly simple one, but incredibly fascinating. Basically, Walkers—wolves that can shed their skin to become human—are servants of the goddess Erin dedicated to hunting and eradicating the seed of the demon Elishta. Demon children, though now uncommon, are considered extremely dangerous, their very blood, saliva and tears capable of polluting whatever it touches—the land, clothing, flesh, life itself. To combat these abominations, Walkers are blessed with many gifts including the ability to smell a man’s life—and sometimes death—in his skin, smelling the secrets of the land, and being able to “merge into the mind of a dead man.” It is this last ability that the majority of Never Knew Another is centered around, with a Walker using Corporal Jona’s memories to search for answers:

His mind was mine now. I could sift through his memories, if I knew what to seek; I could reach into the lives of the people around him, as they were known to him.

What is it like, to hold a million moments from another’s life inside your mind? It’s like living on an island, with two oceans beneath you; the ocean you see when your eyes are open is yours; the ocean you see when your eyes are closed is not. I had to swim in someone else’s waters, and I did.

I see with my eyes, my senses, deep enough into Jona’s memories. I can see more than he ever did. His memories lead where they lead, and there is never too much information for hunters to know their prey.

What makes this concept so fascinating is the wonderful contrast between the Walker’s intimate first-person viewpoint and the more straightforward third-person POVs of Corporal Jona and Rachel Nolander, resulting in an unconventional—and somewhat non-linear—narrative that borders on the surreal. A narrative that could have been dreamed up by someone like Charlie Kaufman or Christopher Nolan. Of course there’s more to Never Knew Another than a cool concept, like the way recognizable fantasy elements are integrated into the unconventional narrative to create something that seems familiar—and therefore accessible—but is actually refreshingly different. Or how the title of the book actually pertains to a central theme in the novel. Or, best of all, the author’s thoughtful examination on the definition of evil. After all, Corporal Jona and Rachel Nolander are considered evil creatures because of their demon blood—“Polluter of flesh, seducer of innocents, betrayer and destroyer of life!”—but are they really?

Unfortunately, Never Knew Another suffers from some serious flaws. World-building for example, is practically non-existent with very little information provided about the Walkers, the goddess Erin, the Church of Imam, the demon Elishta, Senta and other magic in the world, the kingdom’s history and politics, the Night King and so on. For a secondary world, this lack of information is inexcusable, especially when the book only contains 240 pages. Character depth was also an issue, particularly for the two nameless Walkers, while the novel’s sudden ending was largely unsatisfying.

Despite these obvious and frustrating deficiencies, J.M. McDermott’s Never Knew Another was still more of a positive reading experience than a negative one. As a result, I remain intrigued by the forthcoming volumes in the Dogsland Trilogy, which I believe will only get better thanks to the many questions yet to be answered, a fantasy setting ripe with untapped potential, and J.M. McDermott’s creative guidance...

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