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Last Dragon is the most depressing piece of “fantasy/sci-fi” literature I’ve read since, well Nova Swing by M John Harrison. That was just a few months ago at the end of last year.

More on that later.

Last Dragon opens on a dying old empress in her bed, preparing to write her memoirs in the format of a series of letters to someone. In recalling the memories into her deteriorating mind she imagines said realm as a tangle of spider webs where the people she has interacted with throughout life remain tangled and strangled. A sideways reference to eidetic memory? It’s never said.

The style is what makes Last Dragon. The compact, page-long sections of parsed text, the narrator’s voice which stays relentlessly contained within the context of the universe it inhabits, the asides that rip away from the history-style narrative like cold water and the unreliability of the voice all hark to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The similarities only grow stronger later in the story.

As reviews have already stated, once the fragments fit into a full understanding, the reader finds a relatively simple story. I do not understand, however, why some make it out as a flaw in the novel and novelist’s armor. Style itself can be substance, good substance, especially when the cultural bandwidth is overwhelmed with voices who want to tell their stories without learning an engaging way to do so.

The author has come on record and said that he did not approve of the comparison made between Gene Wolfe and him. It is fair, where much of Wolfe’s works are literally puzzles, inviting multiple rereads and shot through with minutiae that mean much more than the page real estate they occupy, Last Dragon retains a strong sense of cohesion and a laser’s focus in pacing and plot. Everything makes sense, if not on that exact page, then certainly within the next one or two, until the very end. There there can be little confusion to any careful reader.

The lack of lingering confusion is a testament to the author’s skills in plot craft considering the fragments’ staccato progression approach the level of Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist.

Last Dragon is depressing. There is an overlying meta plot that hangs over the entire book, is the entire reason the “memoir” is being written. It is referred to in passing continually and never addressed directly. It is never resolved or even fully explained. An obvious saudade dominates this plot-that-isn’t-really-a-plot, but since the reader never learns the context of it, the effect is a gaping strangeness.

The author has said the book is about a sense of duty. To me, Last Dragon is about the destructive aspects of a notion like duty, bushido, honor, whatever name is attributed to sets of self-imposed “moral” obligations. The preconception is that your duties are solipsisms. They pertain to you as an individual and hence affect only you. The rebuttal in Last Dragon says that duty requires action upon others, drawing them inextricably into our spreading webs.

“Day after day, all that we touch entangles us, and the mind struggles in that net: vast and calm, deep and subtle,” someone once said.

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February 2008
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