Review: Never Knew Another

By Jesse Bullington

McDermott, J.M. Never Knew Another. Night Shade Books (January 18, 2011). US$14.99. ISBN-10: 9781597802154.

I have a weakness for badasses wearing animal skins as hoods. This weakness has led me down many paths, most of them utterly terrible, and yet still I follow the siren song of the badass-with-an-animal-skin-hood…and now, at last, I have found my reward. Yet, rest assured – even if you don’t give half a puma pelt for the cover art and the promise therein of a badass wearing a wolfskin, this book will still rock your acrylic socks.

Fantasy fiction has a reputation for grandeur, for epic tales populated with epic casts of epic characters, which is why we have three-hundred-thousand-word trilogy openers and many-book series that occasionally “require” so much space to tell their stories that they surpass the original author’s lifespan. Having a trilogy opener like Never Knew Another, which clocks in at a little over two hundred pages, is a refreshing tonic to this trend, a perfectly balanced, meticulously crafted, high-end cocktail in contrast to a month-old keg of Miller High Life. That McDermott’s novel is richer, more intricate, and deeply moving in its brief span than many a bloated fantasy series manages in its entire bookshelf-spanning run is not only a testament to his prodigious talent and neurosurgeon-careful writing but a refutation of the bigger-is-better school of fantasy.

It’s perhaps unfair to McDermott to keep contrasting his novel with a style of fantasy he is wholly removed from, as it focuses on what he is not doing, rather than what he is. McDermott takes what might have been a fairly standard fantasy plot – two clerics of the moon goddess Erin try to ferret out half-demons masquerading as normal humans, encountering intrigue and adventure along the way – and delivers all the imagination and wonder that a fantastical setting allows for, along with a poignant jolt of humanity and a gritty realism, all transmitted to the reader in elegant, elegiac prose that dips fluidly through multiple layers of story and time with an effortless grace that is neither convoluted nor confusing. It’s also worth noting that the clerics in question are badasses who wear wolfskins in order to shapeshift, but perhaps that’s of more import to fellow badass-with-an-animal-skin-hood aficionados than to the casual reader….

Framed almost as a fantastical police procedural, McDermott’s novel takes us from the wilds of his world into its urban heart, a washed-out city populated by the wretched, desperate poor and the aloof, corrupt nobility, a place where the law is scoffed at even by those charged with enforcing it. In this bleak, muddy setting most every action is a moral shade of grey, yet described in vibrant, colourful narration that fits the tone perfectly. The potentially (very) problematic aspect of having mixed-race characters be inherently evil or “stained” was instead adroitly handled and turned to beautiful, heartbreaking effect – McDermott is not afraid to take chances with his characters or his story, and the payoff is intelligent, introspective fiction that challenges the characters even as it challenges the reader.

The beautiful writing and perfectly realized characters combine to create a heady brew that is equal parts meditation on humanity and grim adventure, an engrossing, fast-paced tale that should appeal to fans of literary fiction and traditional fantasy alike. McDermott’s very first page crackles with style and he somehow manages to maintain that energy and depth of language throughout the novel. It doesn’t even suffer from the dreaded first-book-in-a-series syndrome – the ending will give you some small measure of resolution, yet still leave you salivating for more like one of Erin’s own. Unlike anything else out there. We’re fortunate indeed to have two more entries coming down the quay.

You can purchase this book through Amazon.com.

Bio: Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and The Enterprise of Death. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various magazines, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Chiaroscuro, Jabberwocky, and Brain Harvest, as well as in anthologies such as Running with the Pack, The Best of All Flesh, The New Hero II, Tales for Canterbury, and Historical Lovecraft. He currently resides in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.