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Book Review: Never Knew Another by J. M. McDermott

Genre: Literary Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, High Fantasy
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication Date: January 18, 2011
ISBN-10: 1597802158
ISBN-13: 978-1597802154
Author’s Website: J. M. McDermott

Richly dark, Never Knew Another by J. M. McDermott is a perfect melding of fantasy tropes with an unusual presentation, captivating prose, and fascinating characters. This entrancing dark fantasy is reminiscent of the best aspects of Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur or The City & The City by China Miéville.

The story is twofold. First there is a metanarrative. In this metanarrative, a pair of mated werewolves come across a skull in the woods. Being skilled demon-hunters, they quickly ascertain that this skull belongs to Jona, a former city guard with a demonic heritage. Through the integration of his memories into the mind of the female werewolf, the intrepid hunters then ferret out other half-human/half-demons hiding in the city limits of the place they call “Dogsland”. The metanarrative peaks into the core story at points, giving the reader background information on the whole demon situation and its horrendous effects on the lives it touches.

The second part of the story is a sort of romance. The female werewolf (whose name is never mentioned) tells Jona’s story through the third-person memories she has assimilated. In it, we watch as Jona deals with his demon ancestry – hiding it from the society that would destroy him for it. This is not easy, even though he looks fully human, as his bodily fluids easily sicken people, and almost immediately consume objects they touch. Rachel Nolander has it even worse. She is physically deformed by the demon taint given to her by her father, but her fully human brother does his best to protect her. The primary plot of the story follows Jona and Rachel as they are on a collision course to fall in love. Sometimes, like any series of memories, the plot can take a nonlinear course, but McDermott keeps it fairly straight and narrow and quite easy to follow.

Never Knew Another is an enrapturing tale. Though not evident at first glance, this story is much, much more than its blurb suggests. McDermott has woven a stunning embroidery that evokes Romeo and Juliet’s themes of tragic young love in a early Renaissance style setting. Rachel and Jona are ill-fated, star-crossed lovers separated by only a little time and only a little space (Rachel lives and Jona works in the Pens, a warren of less than savory characters and occupations). Meanwhile, the female werewolf must deal with the memories of Jona, trying not to humanize the demons-tainted people she hunts even as she virtually relives his anguished, careful and lonely life.

As you might imagine, the story is character-driven. Jona and Rachel are sympathetic characters but so too is the female werewolf. This is no clear cut story of good and evil, but a deftly woven, haunting story of love and loss, a tale that builds on the best of the Gothic tradition while cutting its own avenues of form and setting. It’s a brooding work, but one that seems hopeful until the reader remembers its ugly beginning. The tale does end incomplete, with no real resolution. However, the plot twist in the metanarrative, and how it and the Jona/Rachel tale blend together at the finish is delightfully astonishing and enormously enjoyable.

Some readers may be turned away by the novel’s forthright depictions of the slums and the people who live there. This is not a whitewashed city, but something real and gritty. As a result, the story is often quite violent, and anger and fear are dominating emotions for the characters. This is not a pleasant story, at least not at first, but things getter better for the protagonists, and readers will be so emotionally invested, they may almost forget that it all ends badly. No matter how hard you try, you will probably be clutching this novel late into the night, desperate to watch the tragedy of Rachel and Jona unfold. The setting is also largely left to the reader’s imagination. McDermott chooses to only sketch an outline of a world, allowing tone and character to dominate.

Never Knew Another is a work of literary fantasy – a deep exploration of love, loneliness, and identity wrapped in a bundle of dark and poignant prose. A beautiful tome I highly recommend to lovers of dark fantasy, city-centric stories, or Shakespearean tragedy, Never Knew Another is an extraordinary genesis for the Dogsland trilogy.