Author: J. M. McDermott
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication date: February 7 2012
Paperback: 246 pages
J. M. McDermott returns to Dogsland in the stunning novel When We Were Executioners, book two of a sweeping fantasy series that revels in the small details of life. Corporal Jona, the demon-stained Lord of Joni, died in the woods. His lover, the Senta Rachel Nolander, is a demon-tainted fugitive, running from the wolfskin-clad priest and priestess of Erin, who track her through the city based on dreams plucked from Jona’s crying skull, plotting to cleanse the world of the lovers’ demonic taint. Past and present collide as the tale of two ill-fated outcasts unfolds, and the executioners of Erin grow ever closer to their quarry.
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Dogsland trilogy.
How did I get this book: Review copy via NetGalley
Warning: review contains necessary spoilers for book 1, Never Knew Another
When We Were Executioners is the sequel to Never Knew Another, one of my top 10 books of 2011. This trilogy follows an unnamed narrator and her husband, both Walkers and priests of the Goddess Erin, as they investigate the death of a demon-child, the soldier named Jona, in the city of Dogsland. The narrator has formed a connection with Jona’s memories and through them, is able to follow in his footsteps and perform their mission: to eradicate – through the power of fire, through the power of death – all the signs that he was ever alive.
To the Walkers and followers of Erin, the stain of corruption and evil brought by the demon-children is an inevitable reality and they will stop at nothing to obliterate not only everything that Jona ever touched but also the lives of two other demon-children that Jona knew: his lover, Rachel Nolander and his enemy Salvatore Fidelio.
In terms of story, When We Were Executioners picks up right where Never Knew Another left off with the two Walkers still in pursuit of Rachel and Salvatore. As before, the narrative is divided between the anonymous narrator, whose narrative remains stilted and aloof reflecting perfectly the character herself, and the narrative provided by Jona and Rachel’s memories. The different narrative threads intermingle perfectly to provide different points of view of how life is in Dogsland. To Jona, Dogsland is everything he knows, where his family has lived and despite all the things he has come to hate about it – the corruption, the politics – there are things he still loves about it. To Rachel, it is a place where she found, alongside her brother, succour and love. It is also a place of despair, poverty and potential damnation.
To the Walkers, used to the life in the woods, the life in Dogsland is putrid and corrupt and the demon-children are objects of scorn and hatred. The narrator and her husband share a zealous belief in the inevitable corruption of Jona, Rachel and Salvatore – although the more the narrator taps into the memories inside her mind, the more she seems to realise that things might not be as black and white as that – but once she realises that her zeal might be compromised, she demands the promise from her husband that their mission will be accomplished no matter what. And this is what makes this series so interesting: Jona and Rachel are supposed to be evil but through their memories, they are anything but. The more we read about Jona, the more it becomes clear that some of the decisions he makes take him down a path that are certainly damning. The point is: are those decisions made because of his inherent evil nature or because of the circumstances he finds himself in? As such, Jona is an anti-hero: be sympathetic, charismatic and loving as well as desperate, thoughtless and extremely vicious.
These three characters are only but a few of the pieces of this puzzle though and I can’t help but to feel that Dogsland itself is in fact the main character of this trilogy. Through the eyes of the three characters, we see all of its sides: its multi-faceted aspects, its multi-cultural environment, with the wide-spread corruption that begets extreme poverty and social disquiet. If at times, one feels inclined to believe that the demon-children are inherently evil, this assumption is easily put to test by observing the non-demon inhabitants of Dogsland who might as well be easily described as such. But how much of that is truly nature? How much of that is truly circumstance? I feel that this is not a series that provides easy answers to those questions and a lot of it is left at the reader’s discretion and is definitely something else that recommends it.
Moreover, just like in the previous books, the Fantasy elements are played down and are merely another side of each character. The Walkers for example, become Wolves when they don their wolf-skin and any excretion from a demon-child’s body can burn through anything and cause anyone that comes in contact with them to die or become ill. These things are just what they are, an inherent, essential part of the world-building.
All that said, I found the story to be progressing very, very slowly and this book doesn’t move much beyond what we had already seen in Never Knew Another. At this point in time though, I am not entirely certain how I feel about it – at some points, I felt that story lagged considerably and the many characters and different layers to be confusing. At others, I felt this was exactly the point, things are meant to be confusing and detailed because it is the job of the Walkers to sift through all of Jona’s memories in order to see what matters to their mission. This aspect of the story only reaffirms what I believe: plot and pace don’t matter as much as portraying all aspects of this city and its people in detail. This is much more of an observation rather than a negative criticism though, as overall, When We Were Executioners was another fantastic entry in this series.
It is really hard to say or predict how all the pieces of this puzzle will fit together in the end but I can’t wait to see it all coming together. I am invested in the lives of Jona and most of all, the lovely Rachel Nolander not to be there as soon as possible.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Rachel Nolander cries:
Rachel touched her cheek where the lake water had splashed her, but it wasn’t lake water. It was tears. She was crying. Her sleeves melted in the acid, like smoldering paper.Her eyes widened. “Wait!” she said, “Wait!” Jona turned. She bent over. Her tears fell straight down into the grass. A small stench of burning grass and death followed her tears. “What is it?” said Jona. He noticed her clothes were melting here and there. Rachel breathed hard. She tried to clamp down on the lump inside of her. She tried to close her eyes so tight that no tears could slip out. Jona didn’t say anything. He rubbed her back. He looked at her, mystified by what was happening. She chocked hard on her own sobs. She clamped her eyes shut, and tried to hold all of her tears inside.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez
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