Last Dragon

Posted by : atcampbell | On : September 15, 2008

Last Dragon by J. M. McDermott

This meeting at the North Village library had nine attendees. Our topic was Last Dragon, a first fantasy novel by Texas author J. M. McDermott.  Seven of us started the book, and three finished.

One person commented that this book was tough going.  He thought the storytelling was convoluted but could be followed, but ultimately could not see the point of it. He thought the basic plot, unscrambled, was fairly interesting, but not worth the journey.

Another person read the first few pages and gave up. She felt the author should have earned our trust by writing something interesting early in the book, to give us faith that he could pull off the challenging story structure. She compared it with Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which starts a great breakfast scene to get the reader engaged.

One reader felt the writing had some nice turns of phrase, but it quickly became apparent that this was not the type of fantasy plot she finds entertaining. She felt the huge narrative jumps in point of view, time, and space between short passages did not always work. And despite a story dealing with love, dying, and murder, the book never felt exciting. While the book is supposedly being narrated by an older woman reminiscing on her past, she felt that nobody would really tell a story this way. She felt that the narrative approach keeps readers at a distance from the story, so that we can’t get close enough to the characters to learn about and relate to them.

Another attendee read the book almost straight through. She said this was about the only way to get through the book, since otherwise it would be like going back to a nursing home to continue a conversation. She was looking forward to the story having a payoff involving the murder of the protagonist’s daughter, but felt the book did not deliver. She was also hopeful that an endangered species element would develop, but it too disappointed. She commented that the narrator might not even be the right person to tell this story, since she’s really the sidekick to the person the book is really about. She also complained that the book had few fantasy elements.

Others commented that the author should have learned to write a conventional narrative before attempting such an ambitious narrative strategy. We questioned whether this strategy was even appropriate to the story being told. Comparisons were made with applying the storytelling structure of the movie Memento to a teen sex comedy.

Another person finished reading Last Dragon to the end but said it took him several times longer than any other book. He found the story so uninteresting that he took breaks several times and read entire novels by other writers. He felt that many mechanical elements of the writing in this book were wrong. He found some scenes flowed well, but others did not. He complained that the book used italics for too many things: conversation, songs, poetry, emphasis, and commentary by a person other than the narrator. The same scene was repeated multiple times from multiple viewpoints, with differences, and it’s not clear what actually happened. Overall he felt this novel had little to redeem itself.

We had problems by the book design. Several of us thought the recurring graphical motif of ants would have some relevance to the story, but it did not turn out that way. And while starting each short chapter on a new page looked elegant, many of us found this aspect made it easy to put the book down.

Several of us had met the author at ArmadilloCon and liked him. We thought he was a nice man and wanted to like his book. We are disappointed.

After reading the book, some of us looked up its extremely positive reviews (by Jeff VanderMeer and Paul Witcover) to determine what others had liked about it. We were surprised to find they liked everything we disliked about the book. We will now be wary of their opinions. After the meeting, we had a nice dinner at The Frisco.

The Reading Group organizer has a personal postscript. The day after our discussion, I attended the Austin Game Developers Conference. Near the end of the afternoon I saw a familiar face from the science fiction community: the young author whose book we had just discussed. At first we talked about ArmadilloCon, which we both enjoyed. Then he asked what the book group thought of his novel. I wanted to be polite but honest, so I simply told him “we didn’t get it.” He was actually OK with that (he’d clearly heard it before) and quite gracious. He talked a bit about his writing influences (all authors known to have limited appeal like Hal Duncan and Italo Calvino) and clearly wants to continue writing books targeted for a specialized audience. He was at the conference looking for game writing work. I have no idea what kind of game he might write.

— A. T. Campbell, III