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Title: Never Knew Another
Author: J.M. McDermott
Publisher: Night Shade Books Publication date: January 2011 Paperback: 240 Pages
Fugitive Rachel Nolander is a newcomer to the city of Dogsland, where the rich throw parties and the poor just do whatever they can to scrape by. Supported by her brother Djoss, she hides out in their squalid apartment, living in fear that someday, someone will find out that she is the child of a demon. Corporal Jona Lord Joni is a demon’s child too, but instead of living in fear, he keeps his secret and goes about his life as a cocky, self-assured man of the law. The first book in the Dogsland Trilogy, Never Knew Another is the story of how these two outcasts meet.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Dogsland Trilogy
How did we get this book: Review copy from the publisher.
Why did we read this book: Because it looked and sounded cool.
Ana: The first thing that comes to mind is of course, the cover. It is what put the book on my radar and moved me to read it (and it is much more effective – and accurate – than the blurb). Then I started reading the book and at first was taken aback by what felt like stilted writing; until that is, it dawned on me that the narrative voice was behind the style of writing and it all made sense. After that, it only got better and I ended up completely loving the book.
Thea: I completely agree with Ana. When we first got the book from the publisher, I was immediately drawn to the cover art (which is gorgeous, simple, effective, and really memorable/original). I was a little concerned with the title (because “Never Knew Another” for some reason sounds like straight-up romance to me) and the synopsis. When I started the book, I also shared Ana’s concern with the narrative voice – which felt forced and over-wrought. However, as I continued to read, it all began to make sense. I, too, was sucked into this strange, nested story-within-a-story. I, too, finished the book and completely loved it.
On the Plot:
Ana: It opens with two Walkers, the narrator and her husband, coming across a corpse in the road. Recognising it as the body of a demon’s child, the female Walker is able to access its memory and form a connection that will allow them to investigate how it is possible that the creature – a soldier named Jona – was able to live in Dogsland undiscovered for such a long time. Their mission, as Walkers and followers of the Goddess Erin is to follow Jona’s steps and eradicate all the signs that he was ever alive for demon children are considered dangerous and evil: everything that is touched by their saliva, blood, tears or semen, die. Their path will take them all around the town of Dogsland with its intricate religion, politics, social and economic aspects. Then, through Jona’s memories, they find that there are two other demon children alive that must be found before they can bring the inevitable stain of destruction and corruption to the world around them and all the lives they touch.
The more I think about it, the more I think Never Knew Another is a freaking brilliant book. It works in so many different ways:
The narrative itself is multi-layered: the story is narrated from the point of view of the female Walker (who is unnamed) as she taps into the Jona’s memories, and via Jona’s memories, Rachel’s memories. It might sound confusing but it is not. What it is though, is a fantastic, dense, narrative within a narrative that opens up several different plotlines – those of Jona’s life and Rachel’s life, but also in recovering their memories, the narrator becomes privy of everything that surrounds their lives, which is in turn a viewpoint to observe the mores of Dogsland itself. This, I feel is expertly handled by the author in the way that every character’s voice is different even when they are put forward by the narrator – who has a stilted, circumspect voice because well, she is a wolf (but more on that later).
The book works, too, in the theme that it explores: Dogsland is a town with different social stratus, with the very rich and/or influential on one side and the very poor living completely different lives; add to that ruined aristocracy, con men, religious factions and the potentially explosive presence of demon children in their midst and it is a rich cauldron and a multifaceted place. The best part is that none of it comes with info dump or play catch up: those things are revealed naturally to the reader as the narrator walks around and oversees and remembers. But perhaps, the main theme of the story is the difference between expectation and reality when it comes to the nature of those demon children. Religion advocates that they are evil, the Walkers are bent on their destruction. Yet, Jona and Rachel’s memories show nothing but two people completely terrified of being found, living their life restricting themselves from doing anything that could make them being discovered or even to cause harm.
On the down side, the book is extremely short and clearly the first in a trilogy with many unanswered questions (ie not self contained at all) and a minor cliff-hanger. And I want to read the rest of this story, like, now.
Thea: I feel like this is going to be one of those reviews where I am gonna have to say, “Yes! YES! What Ana said!” repeatedly. So…YES! What Ana said! Never Knew Another works on many different levels as a novel, from its metatextual story, to its sumptuous, sweat and poison-blooded world, to its characters, to its lush writing.
In many ways, Never Knew Another reminded me of the Catherynne M. Valente’s writing style, with its nested storylines and plots. Although J.M. McDermott’s writing isn’t quite as lyrically smooth and effortelss as Ms. Valente’s, both writers share the ability to seamlessly alternate storylines and characters, evoking an atmosphere of complete immersion in their respective books. I loved how the entire novel is, mostly, taking place in our unnamed wolf-skinwalker narrator’s head, as she scours demon-child Jona’s memories for the locations of the other two demons in the city. The two wolf-people are determined to destroy the stain of these demon children, unerringly certain in the necessity of their grim task of burning, cleansing, and killing.
Within that narrative is Jona’s story, as he struggles to conceal his true nature from the outside world. See, the thing with demon-children is that their every excrement and bodily fluid – blood, spit, sweat – is toxic to living things. Jona’s sweat eats through his uniforms, his spit can kill plants, and his blood can bring humans in contact with it – even for a fleeting second – to deathly illness. Jona at least has a completely human form, which allows him to pass for human more easily. However, for some children born with demon blood like Rachel, their forms themselves are twisted and monstrous; Rachel’s body is covered with scales, with talons instead of feet. This concept of demon-blood and the religious zeal surrounding this taint is fantastically written – highly original and fully imagined, J.M. McDermott’s world of Dogsland and its stain of demonic humans is truly awesome stuff.
On the Characters:
Ana: The narrator and her husband are the two characters that move the story forward in the “now” and the author makes a bold choice to leave them unnamed. Though Anonymous they might be, they are far from being faceless or nondescript. Part human and part wolves, the wife and husband are unaccustomed to living in the city and are burdened with a task that will lead them to have contact with people they dislike and situations they’d rather not be involved with. But they are completely dedicated to their goddess and their beliefs. The stiltedness in the narrator’s voice comes, I believe, from them not being a part of this society. The question is: as the memories unfold and become part of the narrator’s own mind, will she ever be able NOT to feel a deep connection to those she is learning about? Will she ever change her mind about their nature? I am really looking to seeing this played out in the future books.
As for Jona and Rachel: the portrayal of their lives is sad and poignant. Jona is an impoverished aristocrat, who lives with his mother and has never ever SLEPT in his life and tries as much as he can to tread carefully when around people; but also being on the lookout and defensive has its toll and it is not unusual to see Jona on the brink of doing something stupid. Rachel on the other hand has it even worse was most of her body is covered in scales and her tongue is forked and trying to keep that a secret is a chore for every.single.minute of her life.
Their story opens up discussion as to the conflict between nature and nurture for example: can Jona and Rachel live a normal life amongst humans or will their demon nature inevitably make an appearance? If that happens is it because it is inevitable or is it due to the circumstances they are placed in?
The irony comes from the feeling that the narrator and her husband are sometimes more alien and less human than Jona and Rachel could ever be.
Thea: Again, I wholeheartedly agree with Ana. Although the nameless skinwalker husband and wife wolves are the “realtime” story and the wife is our nameless narrator, Never Knew Another is truly Jona (and Rachel and Salvatore)’s story. I won’t reiterate what Ana’s said, but I think the best part of the book, for me, is this question of inherent evil. Yes, demon blood is toxic. Yes, it “stains” and eats through any living material it comes in contact with, corrupting and killing plants, animals and humans. The wolf-humans are so sure that anyone with demon blood will become inevitably corrupted and must be burned – but I can’t help but wonder if that is truly the case. The demon-children we read about in this book have had to hide their nature from the outside world in every way and have had the constant fear of death over their heads for simply being born the way they are. And, for the most part (Salvatore aside), these demon children have done their best to stay out of the way of humans that they could hurt with their very presence. From the emotions that Jona experiences – removed and unnatural as they may be at times – one can’t help but wonder, are these demon-seed truly evil? Like Ana asks above, how much of their behavior is because they have been born with an irredeemable taint of demon blood, and how much of it is because they have been forced to live these lives of fear, isolation, and dejection?
There’s a lot of food for thought in Never Knew Another, with many unanswered questions. I cannot wait for the next book to continue on in this strange, different new world.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: The more I think about Never Knew Another the more I appreciate the intricacy of its narrative and storyline and the strength of its characters. Can I also just say how much I love the title and how when it is revealed to the reader what it means I got goose bumps?
Thea: Agreed! This is one of those rare books that gets better the more that you reflect on it. I loved the nested storylines and the tangled characters; I loved the intricacies of this world, and the author’s distinctive writing style. I cannot wait for more from the talented J.M. McDermott. Absolutely recommended.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
I was born in a cave beyond the mountains. The first time my feet touched the ground, the pine nettles stung me. The rocks made me shiver when my skin pressed into them. The water was brisk and filthy. The air was clean as snow. I learned that every tree fights for sunlight in the canopy, but this happens so slowly that the combat looks like peace. This is what I thought of cities: each person is a tree, crawling on top of another to reach the sunlight. Random chance planted seeds in patches of light, and these seeds grew to become larger trees. They were alll like a strange forest
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 8 – Excellent