12 March 2007

Cybils Nominee The Last Dragon

Among the novels nominated for the Cybils Award in Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Last Dragon produced the widest scope of opinions. Some people liked it a lot. Some people disliked it even more. I was in the second group.

Silvana de Mari originally called her novel L’Ultimo Elfo, Italian for The Last Elf, and that’s the title of the British edition. De Mari seems to like ultimates: her other books include L’ultima stella a destra della luna and L’ultimo orco.

Apparently Miramax/Hyperion thought a dragon would sell better. But there’s no question that the last elf, a little creature nicknamed Yorsh, dominates the story. He’s also de Mari’s most innovative creation. In folklore we have the tradition of elf as small woodland sprite, often mischievous. And in fantasy literature since Tolkein we have the tradition of elf as tall woodland warrior, usually solemn.

The Last Dragon offers a third view: elf as special-needs child. Yorsh’s terrors, his naiveté, his natural powers, and his self-endangering behavior inspire a woman (usually called “the woman”) and a man (“the hunter”) to band together to protect him, and eventually the couple starts a true family. There are some funny moments as these characters adjust to each other. And, to my taste, there are many more unfunny moments when the same jokes are pounded over and over into the ground.

In fact, a lot of the narrative seems repetitive and mannered to me. Chapters 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 15, 19, 20, and 36 start with day breaking and/or characters waking up. Six of those nine chapters even have “dawn” or “daybreak” in their opening sentences. There’s an ongoing motif in the early chapters of Yorsh trying to find a name for a dog; the weak payoff is that he chooses “Fido.” When the elf reads ancient runes (after all, every high fantasy needs ancient runes), he identifies them as from the First, Second, and Third Runic Dynasty.

Some of those runes spell out a prophecy (after all, every high fantasy needs a prophecy): “When the last dragon and the last elf break the circle, the past and the future will meet...” I’d have thought that the moment when past and present meet is called “the present,” but in this story that’s when the land will be freed from a climatic catastrophe. Which brings me to the book’s plot.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster defines a plot (as distinct from what he calls “story”) to be defined by causal relationships between events: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Adding a prophecy to a fantasy story makes those connections even more important: they’ve been preordained, after all. A prophecy makes a deal with the characters, and with the readers: if the characters can fulfill this condition, the result follows.

Part I of The Last Dragon repudiates this. Without any verbal hints or other preparation, de Mari has Yorsh explain that the “When” in that prophecy doesn’t imply causality, simply coincidence. The climate improved because of some event in the solar system, which happened to occur at the same time the little elf met the cranky old dragon. And just then, not by coincidence, I lost interest in de Mari’s story, which shifts to another adventure years later. Fool me once...

The translation of The Last Dragon/Elf into English by Shaun Whiteside won a Batchelder Honor from the American Library Association. So I assume that the English text is an accurate translation of the Italian story, quirks and all.


gail said...

I have to admit that this wasn't my favorite of the books in the short list, though it did have some strong support from other members. I wondered about the title, too. I believe it was the last book selected, and I was still reading it during the discussion.

Speaking of causal relationships and plot, there was an event at the end of the book that I felt came out of nowhere.

J. L. Bell said...

I picked up from people's blogs that the nominating committee had a range of opinions on The Last Dragon. The judges did, too, though not as wide.

I was actually surprised to find that The Last Dragon wasn't De Mari's first novel because of those (to me) clunky plotting choices.

On the plus side, she did show an interesting use of language. I can't say the result was always enjoyable, but it was distinctive.

Emily H. said...

I am a bit puzzled by your assumption that the translation is an accurate one; translated books often win critical praise with not the slightest regard for whether the translation bears even a slight resemblance to the original.

J. L. Bell said...

Emily H., the Batchelder Honor is a recognition for the translation itself, not for the book's overall quality or popularity. So in my trusting way I assume that the folks who awarded it examined the translation against the original.