When We Were Executioners by J. M. McDermott
Reviewed by Jesse Bullington
19 March 2012
J. M. McDermott's Never Knew Another (2011), the first entry in his fantastical Dogsland Trilogy, packed an epic's worth of punch into a scant 232 pages. That novel, which I reviewed for Innsmouth Free Press, did just about everything right, combining an intriguing cast and plot with cheek-gnawing moral conundrums and exquisite, lyrical writing. The near-perfection of that trilogy-opener raised my hopes to dangerously lofty heights for McDermott's second entry in the trilogy, When We Were Executioners, but for the most part McDermott manages to meet these expectations.
The central conceit of this quasi-medieval secondary world trilogy is that demons sometimes mate with humans, with any resulting children, called "of-demons," being tainted from birth. Although they can sometimes disguise the myriad physical manifestations of this taint (patches of reptilian scales instead of skin, etc.), these half-demons are inherently toxic: their sweat and tears eat away at their clothing, their saliva and blood are poisonous to flora and fauna. There is no cure, and the half-demons are persecuted by human authorities, as well as the werewolf clergy of a moon goddess who are known as Erin's Walkers. Execution is always the result.
Obviously this setup is dangerously loaded if we follow it to any real world analogue, even with the of-demons being represented as individuals rather than dyed-in-the-wool evildoers. There's no real getting around this element, but it's a testament to McDermott's writing that this never hobbles the project. It is decidedly secondary world, after all, and his sympathetic treatment of beings who cannot help their heritage is made more interesting by the premise that the persecuted minority is actually as dangerous as the ignorant, fearful majority believes them to be. That the of-demon characters in these novels veer from the meticulously careful to the fatally irresponsible when it comes to the risk of poisoning mundane humans is as realistic as it is nerve-wracking, from the perspective of the reader—the abject is personified here, both as petty and profound.
The main narrator of these onion-layered novels is one of these shapeshifting Erin's Walkers, with the overarching plot revolving around her investigation into several half-demons hiding in Dogsland—what the Walkers call human society in general, and the teeming city where much of the action takes place in particular. The Walkers have a sometimes-shaky jurisdiction over the hunting of half-demons even in human settlements, given their unique abilities at locating their quarry. The method our narrator uses to track down the of-demons provides much more than plot advancement—When We Were Executioners begins as the Walker's first-person account of the investigation, but by handling the skull of a deceased half-demon named Jona, she is able to engage with his memories.
The premise of psychic/necromantic detectives is a well-worn one, but McDermott takes what could be a predictable and even cheesy device and completely owns it. Both novels thus weave between the Walker narrator's perspective and third-person accounts of a half-demon's double-life in Dogsland, with When We Were Executioners beginning in much the same way that Never Knew Another both began and concluded:
I dream of dead men.
The skull that rests upon a lip in the cave pollutes my mind, in sleep. Corporal Jona, the Lord of Joni, died in the woods. My husband and I found him there, polluting the ground with the stain of the demon in Jona's blood. (p. 1)
Jona's skull is what drove Never Knew Another, and it's what drives When We Were Executioners. In the first novel we met Jona through his memories, memories of growing up the only son of a noble family fallen on hard enough times that Jona works as a king's man (essentially a beat cop in the unnamed city's militia). A bitter, corrupt man willing to kill in order to hide his half-demon heritage, Jona meets Rachel Nolander, another of-demon who has successfully hidden her true nature. Rachel and her fully-human brother Djoss arrive in Dogsland and settle in the Pens, the worst part of town that also happens to be Jona's jurisdiction. While Djoss becomes involved in the illicit trade of "pink," the addictive narcotic of choice for Dogslanders, Rachel and Jona begin a wary courtship that, given how the story is being told, we know is doomed from inception.
Complications arise as Jona is blackmailed by a powerful underworld figure known as the Night King, and then compounded by the introduction of a third half-demon character, a dissipated thief and conman named Salvatore. Before the novel reaches its perhaps overly hasty finale, Jona has successfully framed and thus damned Aggie, a girlfriend of Salvatore's, by substituting his own blood for hers after accusations arise that she is of-demon. It's all wrapped up the machinations of the Sabachthani family, who are next in line to rule Dogsland after the ailing king dies; that the noble family is not above trafficking in toxic of-demon remains to help power its dark sorceries is discovered by the Walkers as the novel draws to its close.
It's great stuff, a tense, breakneck-paced work, and one made all the more impressive because none of the above plot points or elided-over-here twists provide the text's paramount enjoyment. Where Never Knew Another shines is in its writing, the decadent, rich prose that a reader would gladly follow for its own reward. The writing swims effortlessly from first person to third, from present to past, propelling the above storyline, building fascinatingly conflicted characters and societies, and generally doing everything that brilliant writing should—it's great art and great craft all rolled into one:
Ants have no souls to lose. We gave the tainted skull back to the body while we cleaned away the bones. We planted two red queens in his gaping mouth, and blessed them both to hasten their hungry daughters. When only bones remained, we planted tough dandelions to eat the worst of the stain from the earth. We'd harvest the first generation of dandelions before they spread their white seeds. Then, we will plant sunflowers. This first generation of sunflowers will be short and covered in thorns, but those sunflowers' children will be better. In a few generations, the flowers won't need to be burned.
Someday sunflowers will once again bloom again here. They will be as tall as men, and smell sweet. (Never Knew Another, p.3)
This imagery, beyond everything else it is doing, would be perfect even if it were not recalled to fine effect in the haunting finale:
We will return to the city, in the depth of night, but not yet.
Salvatore had lived long and long before we knew him. Like the city that had hid him from us, Erin will come for him and tear all the buildings down around him. Sunflowers will grow tall and golden there. The wolves will run the dogs away and rule the rocky ground where the bricks lay broken. (Never Knew Another, p. 231)
Which brings us to When We Were Executioners, a novel every bit as gorgeously written as its predecessor. We return to Dogland and the Walkers' pondering of Jona's skull, which still holds many secrets. While Never Knew Another sprawled in all directions, temporally as well as spatially and thematically, its follow-up narrows its focus significantly. Some readers who enjoyed the first novel's quick pacing may be turned off by the languid turn this book takes, but I appreciated being able to catch my breath and better get to know the characters. Granted, I may not have liked them as much once I knew them better, but I'm fine following a flawed or even repellent character, so long as he or she is interesting.
We pick up the novel with our Walker narrator and her husband returning to Dogsland to continue their investigation. They had left the city during the climax of Never Knew Another, following their confiscation of two other of-demon skulls they seized from the Sabachthani estate—Lord Sabachthani being the most powerful noble in Dogsland, a practitioner of proscribed sorceries, and the dying father of Lady Ela Sabachthani, an equally dangerous noble and heir to the entire kingdom. Lord Sabachthani we meet only briefly in a confrontation early in the novel, when the Walkers pay him a visit for some verbal fencing.
Although this scene early on leads the reader to anticipate more of the Walkers' investigation, for the bulk of the novel they are even more in the background than in Never Knew Another. This is a bit of a shame, as those sections were some of my favorites from the first novel, and the hardline, almost-fascist black and white filter they apply to Dogsland's endless shades of grey is a nice dichotomy. They are also contain some of the most colorful, enchanting writing:
Inn beds acquired too many old smells for wolf noses. In this little room, a thousand lovers had left the ghosts of their affections in the sheets. With the loamy soap smell and the sea wind and the maid sweat from all the trips down the stairs, through the wash, onto the line, and back again for more lovers, I'd only dream of the mechanical motion of anonymous lovers and anonymous maids like clock hands tearing at the white linen skin of the sheets. I'd wake up dizzy. (p. 18)
Almost the entirety of the book settles on Jona and Rachel, together and apart. Rachel works as a maid cleaning up in brothels, while her brother Djoss and his two friends form a drug dealing gang called the Three Kings of Dogsland. Jona's already precarious position as a crooked king's man continues to erode, and between carrying out contract killings on behalf of his blackmailers and stealing time with Rachel, he visits Aggie—the girl condemned to death as an of-demon after Jona frames her—in her prison cell.
The segments where Jona tends to Aggie start off as heartbreaking, but I'll confess to growing frustrated as Aggie failed to develop much as a character or do anything beyond pine away for Salvatore, her of-demon lover who has already forgotten her despite Jona's attempts to convince him to help her escape. Initially, we're moved that selfish, ruthless Jona is trying to help Aggie, but then he cops a feel of her breast while she's passed out, and the sympathy we were building for Jona is dealt a hard blow. That so much time is spent with Jona and Aggie without the main plotline progressing is representative of the shift between this book and its predecessor—here, McDermott is more interested in exploring the moral landscapes and emotional plots he introduced in the first novel, rather than advancing them.
For some, this will definitely feel like wheel-spinning, which is of course the most common pitfall of a middle book in a trilogy. To my mind, though, it seems more likely that this what McDermott planned from the beginning—a slow burn series of character studies and brooding meditations on human frailty, rather than a plot-driven adventure. In Never Knew Another, the novelty of McDermott's achingly marvelous prose carried the reader along, but going into a text with the expectation of that language leads one to pay sharper attention to what else is at work—and while the plot is fine, that was never the text's chief strength. It's an even more desperate, brutal read than Never Knew Another, where a scene of Jona gate-crashing a noble's ball with Rachel in tow is even more tense than his assassination-and-get-away set pieces.
What made Never Knew Another such a remarkable read was how unexpected and fresh a read it was. With that in mind, I should have suspected that When We Were Executioners would go in a very different direction from what I might have anticipated. Down to the page count, it's exactly the same length as its predecessor, but it's so rich in detail that it feels twice as long. Yet for all its differences, the parallels McDermott weaves between the two are among the most satisfying elements, as demonstrated by how he winds down toward his finale:
There is another demon skull to claim, an old one more terrifying than any living. We will no longer be executioners chasing after a prize. We will be the fire that purifies this city for a thousand years. Let the rain come and cool the ash from our flame. We were supposed to be executioners. We were supposed to be hunters and killers of abominations. (p. 231)
The question of how McDermott will concludes the trilogy is less sure than ever now, save the certainty that it will be interesting.