Wizards of the Coast sent out a very neat publicity kit last fall. Of all the advance reading copies it contained, I elected to read J. M. McDermott's debut. Last Dragon is advertized as a literary fantasy novel in the tradition of Gene Wolfe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Talk about raising expectations to a level that no debut can aspire to reach, right? Still, I was intrigued and decided to give it a shot.
As a matter of course, Last Dragon doesn't live up to such lofty expectations. Which is not to say that it's a bad book, mind you. McDermott's debut has a lot of good things going for it, yet the book also suffers from a number of shortcomings.
Last Dragon is written economically, which is both a positive and a negative thing. On the upside, it makes for a narrative that flows well. Extremely short scenes in relatively short chapters help speed the story along. On the downside, many of the concepts are bare bones and should have been further fleshed out to make this tale more absorbing.
The narrative jumps from one point to another along the past and the future of the novel's timeline. This works rather well at the onset of the tale, but it becomes increasingly confusing as the story moves along.
For those who, like me, like to visualize, the absence of a map makes it hard to picture where the cast is located across the timeline. The characters travel around the world quite a bit, and I could never really tell where they were at any point in time.
McDermott's economical prose also hurts him in terms of worldbuilding. He introduces many facets which appear quite interesting, yet he never truly follows up with much details, which turns several good ideas into missed opportunities. This in turn leads to a number of disappointments, as readers habitually want to learn more. Indeed, what starts off as compelling plot points deteriorate gradually and become somewhat monotonous storylines.
The same could be said regarding the characterization, I'm afraid. McDermott's cast of characters is engaging at the beginning of the novel. Zhan, Seth, Adel, Fest and the others show a lot of promise. Unfortunately, the absence of details to flesh them out more means that there is little character growth. Or, more exactly, the characters evolve during the course of the tale, but the reader doesn't witness the transition. We know close to nothing about their personalities and motives.
I'm well aware that I don't say this very often, but I believe that Last Dragon should have been longer. It would have given the author the chance to bring this book to another level, for the potential is definitely there. The absence of details concerning too many facets of the novel makes for a somewhat bland story that could have been a lot better. It's sad, for Last Dragon showed a lot of promise. . .
It will be interesting to see how Wizards of the Coast will market this new line, as it will not appeal to their usual readers.
The final verdict: 6.75/10