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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

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

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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’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...


Anonymous said...

I've just finished reading it on my kindle and I couldn't believe that it ended at the part it did! It felt so incomplete I'm a little depress that it's so short. It's definitely a good book but I would have been more satisfied if it had been able to stand on its own. :(

It was a great read until the end, where it left a lot of things hanging.

Robert said...

Yeah, I didn't like the way the book ended, but I guess it's one way to keep readers interested in the sequel :)

Andrew said...

I just finished Never Knew Another and I really enjoyed it. I respectfully disagree with your comment about the lack of worldbuilding. I personally am quite tired of fantasy novels that devote far too much space to background information. I much prefer the gradual unfolding of the world through characters' thoughts and dialogue than a shopping list of religions, races, political divisions, etc. I honestly don't want to know more about the gods and history of this world than the author has dished out until the next book serves up some more. I like the mystery; far too often there is no mystery and a book becomes quickly forgettable. I look forward to the next one.

Robert said...

I understand where you're coming from Andrew, but I'm not saying McDermott needed to write a 1000-page tome. Just a few details presented here and there could have really fleshed out the setting, while preserving the novel's mysteriousness. After all, at only 240 pages long, a few pages (or even a dozen) of additional world-building would hardly have mattered...

D_Davis said...

The lack of world-building is never a problem; it is always a blessing. The inclusion of pages upon pages of expository world-building is a plague on the realm of modern, post-Tolkien Fantasy that McDermott is helping to rid the world of. He's taking fantasy back to the times of Lord Dunsany, when stories were more brief, and weren't bogged down with volumes of over 800 pages each.


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