Friday, 15 April 2011
‘Never Knew Another’ – J.M. McDermott (Night Shade Books)
Sometimes though, life decides to give your ‘inner librarian’ a helping hand and make sure that particular books don’t find their way to you until exactly the right time’. This is what happened with J.M. McDermott’s ‘Never Knew Another’. I’d heard nothing but good things about ‘Last Dragon’ but never got round to checking it out due to all the crazy things that happened last year. Just as things started to calm down I was asked if I’d like to give ‘Never Knew Another’ a go and I was still sufficiently intrigued enough to say yes. Not only am I glad that I did, I’m also glad that life didn’t put it in my hands until just recently. I wouldn’t have got on with this book at all if I’d read it sooner. ‘Never Knew Another’ is a book that demands your full attention if you’re going to get the most out of it but that extra input is well worth your time.
Rachel Nolander is the child of a demon and if anyone discovers this secret then she will be burnt alive. She has spent a large part of her life moving from city to city, with her brother Djoss, and the city of Dogsland represents possibly her last chance to make any kind of life for herself. Not that it’s much of a life if you live in Dogsland and are not one of the rich; the poor are left to scrabble in the mud and do the best they can. The city is capable of coming up with a few surprises though as another demon’s child lives there too. While Rachel cowers and tries not to be discovered, Corporal Jona Lord Joni hides his secret in plain site as a member of the City Guard. ‘Never Knew Another’ is the story of what happens when these two outcasts meet.
At only two hundred and thirty one pages long (I’m not going to count the three lines that spill over onto page two hundred and thirty two) ‘Never Knew Another’ gives the impression of being a quick read. Don’t let it fool you though; here is a book that not only has plenty to say for itself but will stick around in your head for a long time after you’ve read it.
‘Never Knew Another’ takes a brave approach in that you find out what will eventually happen to one of the main characters on the very first page (you also have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with the other). I was intrigued enough by this move to keep on reading but found myself wondering if one of the points of my continued reading had been taken away a little too early. As time went on though it became clear that letting the ending out of the bag early is no big deal as this isn’t actually what the book is about. ‘Never Knew Another’ is an examination of loneliness and how it can affect a person at it’s most extreme. Giving away the ending at this very early stage actually serves to lend an extra sense of urgency to Rachel and Jona’s interactions, when they finally meet, and there’s also a sense of inevitability that gives these moments extra weight and emphasis. It’s a bold move to take but it’s also entirely the right one to make.
Rachel and Jona take centre stage against a backdrop that is shot through with a violent contrast between the rich and the poor residents of the city. While the focus was entirely right I wouldn’t have minded seeing the city itself in a little more detail. In this regard, it felt like the descriptions of the city were there purely to highlight Rachel and Jona’s plight rather than provide a backdrop in its own right. I wonder whether the intended effect might have been more effective if descriptions of the city had been allowed to grow organically rather than shoehorned into highlighting what was going on with the characters...? The story is told through the memories of one of the main characters, taken in by one of the people hunting them, and this approach ended up being a great way of bundling a set of perspectives together and telling a story that has more than one layer. McDermott ties everything together very neatly and it has the added consequence of making the reader really concentrate on what’s on the page. You can find yourself tripping up easily, if you’re not careful, and having to read a passage over again to find out what’s happening. There’s enough left unanswered to make you want to find out more and that’s partly why I’ll be back for the next book.
McDermott really hits the nail on the head with his examination of loneliness and what it can do. Both Rachel and Jona deal with their loneliness in different ways but it’s made clear that they are on their own and there is nothing they can do about it without calling down the wrong kind of attention. You really get an idea of the intensity of what they’re feeling and this makes it all the more poignant when they finally discover each other. You get hints of this meeting throughout the book but this doesn’t detract from the almost childlike emotions the two of them experience when they realise that they are not on their own at all. I really felt for both of them, I still do in fact.
Despite a slight feeling of imbalance, ‘Never Knew Another’ is a very strong opening instalment in a trilogy that looks like it will pay real dividends to follow. Give it a go if you’re after something a little more thoughtful.
Nine and a Half out of Ten