BRIEF SYNOPSIS: This is the story of Rachel Nolander, the child of a demon, and Jona Lord Joni, also a demon child, and how these two hunted outcasts meet.
PROS:A clear, unfettered prose style, allowing for moments of poetry without becoming florid or overwrought; an inventive story which takes a fairly simple pair of ideas and builds a complex narrative out of them; the length.
CONS:The structure of the novel, the stories within stories, might make it hard for readers to instantly pick up, but will reward them if they do; dialog is sparse throughout the book, excellent when it appears, but I wish there’d been more.
BOTTOM LINE: A powerful, visceral fantasy novel which has at its heart the a tragical love story, well-populated by people you cannot help but care for. Strong language and writing makes this a book to revisit.
Never Knew Another arrived in the mail from the author himself, inscribed with a personalization I had suggested to him earlier on. I’ve known McDermott for a little while, in a casual sort of way, I hadn’t read his first novel (The Last Dragon), and I was excited to see this, his second novel arrive. I knew nothing about it, but the arrival of any book excites me.
That said, I was nervous. I am not a fan of high fantasy of any sort, though not for lack of trying. Be it your Terry Brooks, or your George R. R. Martin, stories set in other worlds which seem to owe something to Tolkien always leave me cold, wonderful though they may be. I’d promised to review Never Knew Another, and was worried that I might hate it and have to say so.
Happily, I needn’t have been concerned.
To summarize the story of Never Knew Another is to give you a faint idea of what happens, but fails to give you any of the stuff that makes the novel so remarkable. Two wolfskin-wearing agents of Erin (a deity) are seeking out any occurrences of demon-stain in the world, and when it’s found, it has to be burned out, whether it’s inside a person, or has stained the walls of a house, or ruined a patch of grass. Though those with the demon-stain may pass as human, they never are, and they can infect and sicken others merely by touch. They might not always be evil, but they are always dangerous. The agents of Erin are seeking Rachel Nolander and her brother Djoss, both demons, and they are seeking him through another demon named Jona Lord Joni, who is a corporal in the King’s Men, in a city we come to know as Dogsland.
The narrative is explored in a framed-storytelling fashion. That is to say, we begin in one story, we step into someone else’s story, and then from there we step into a third story, a storytelling method which I first encountered and fell in love with in the classic novel Frankenstein.
If the novel sounds in any way confusing, it isn’t, and this is one of the first successes of Never Knew Another. McDermott has, from page one, a powerful and clear storytelling voice, and a strong control over his language. The story never gets away from him, and never becomes unclear or confusing, even as the story bounces frequently between a whole range of characters and their stories. This strong clear language still allows for the occasional turn of phrase which is poetic and powerful, but they never turn into florid pieces of poetic writing that makes you want to skip to the bottom of the page.
The concerns I mentioned above, about the type of high fantasy I dislike, were entirely unfounded. This novel owes less to Tolkien and the field he inspired as it does to Charles Dickens and the works he inspired. The novel is set, on the whole, in the city which we know throughout the book as Dogsland. Within the city, we range from the elegant mansions of high society, down into the filthy muck and shit of the lowest places in the city. The world presented here is visceral and brutal, and dangerous, full of disease and poverty and hunger. The city – and indeed, the book – is stuffed with people struggling to make their way in the world, to eke out the barest existence. Occasionally, it’s almost hard to read. Another skill McDermott has is the ability to draw characters into life, to turn them into people who you cannot help but care about.
Really, there are no bad guys in the book. No one you can point at and say “he is clearly the villain,” and this is something else that makes me happy, because it makes for a more complex novel that you can visit and revisit. None of the characters blur together, and you wish you had more time with the lot of them. To name one or two in particular does not mean I’m picking favorites, just picking names: there is a downtrodden, wretched mother of three we meet named Sparrow, and I felt nothing but sympathy for her from the moment she appeared. And there was a Lady of high society named Ela Sabachthani who does a couple of horrible things that we know about, and yet never becomes evil. Alarming, but never evil. One of the strengths of the book is that it has not set up any particular group of people to have an agenda against. There are good and bad people in every walk of life, throughout the book, and they are occasionally embodied in the same person.
One thing I really wish the book had was more dialog. It’s tremendously sparse, and when it appears, it draws a scene and the characters with an added level of life and spark. You don’t miss it when it’s not present – the writing is always strong enough – but after encountering a few long passages of dialog, I wished there had been more of it.
In my head, I am perpetually drawing Venn Diagrams, putting the thing I’m reading or writing in the center of the things I think have most strongly influenced it. For Never Knew Another, picking the works I own which seem to relate to it, it is a book surrounded by the works of Charles Dickens, Dan Simmons (particularly his historical novels, Drood, The Terror, and so on), the works of Joe Hill, and the video game series Assassin’s Creed. And given the quality of those video games, and the effort they put into creating a world and then giving you something to do in it, I cannot help but find that attractive.
The strongest relation, though, is Terry Pratchett, and I need to explain that one for a second. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are all set in a fantasy world which, being all done with any epic quests, now has to get on with the tricky business of living and keeping food on the table, and not killing one another. They are played for comedy – sort of – but underneath the comedy is always a host of intelligent things to be said about the working classes, the struggles of people trying to get along, and non-heroic life one might lead as a City Watchmen. In Never Knew Another, it seems to me that McDermott is commenting on many of the exact same topics, although comedy is never part of the goal. It’s definitely never a funny book.
The final thing I want to mention is the length of the book. The copy I’m holding, the copy out on shelves right now, is 232 pages long. And on the back of the book, it says that this is book one of the Dogsland Trilogy. Both of these things make me happy. I view it as an accomplishment all by itself that he takes a deep, amazing world and sets multiple stories within it, builds a complexity into his story, and yet manages to finish it without having turned the book into a massive tome I could use to stun burglars.
And the word trilogy is the best part here, because it promises me two of the most wonderful things. First, it tells me “this story has an end. It is going somewhere and will, soon, arrive there and conclude.” That’s terrific. Stories need endings, and I’m grateful this one will have one two books later.
The second thing trilogy tells me is even better, though, and that is “there is more to come. Two more books about this.” Thank goodness. You leave the book utterly invested in all the people you’ve just met, and I’d hate not to see more of them.
So having read this, get thee hence to the places you get your stories and get a copy of Never Knew Another. You won’t regret it. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to think we’re looking at the beginning of a career which we will see as a major one. J.M. McDermott stands ready to be the literary heir to people like Gene Wolfe, and that is very exciting indeed.