The Last Namsara

The Last Namsara, by Kristen Ciccarelli (Gollancz, 2017)

The Last Namsara’s biggest problem is its title. It’s descriptive, but hardly grabbing. If you don’t know what a namsara is then it won’t be of much interest.

However, an alternative would probably have “dragon” in the title and that might put even more people off.

The German edition is Der Sturm naht (The Storm is Approaching). Maybe that would work.

But with that quibble out of the way, let me say that this is an enchanting YA fantasy by a debut author.

Ciccarelli’s greatest achievement is finding something new to say about dragons. Any dracopositive book stands or falls on how well it does it: new and interesting, middling and meh, or tired old fantasy trope? These ones are firmly in the former category. In the book’s prehistory they were valued friends of humanity. Now they are vermin: vicious, fire-breathing and sub-intelligent. As the story progresses, we begin to discern their true position. And they have a taste for stories, the older, the better. Telling a story is how you call them down from the skies to be ridden as allies – or lure them out of their lairs to be slain. In the very first line we get Asha, the most ruthless dragon hunter of her generation, doing precisely that. Ciccarelli gets her hooks in early.

But the dragons, like Asha, are the victims of lies that have distorted the natural order. Her home is in the grip of a culture based on lies – otherwise known as untrue stories – in an Orwellian, “this has always been the case” sort of way. We learn that the lies only go back to Asha’s childhood, and she’s no more than 18, so less than a generation, and we might stop and ask, hang on, can lies get such a grip on a culture so quickly?

Well, yes, they can: look over the Atlantic … Okay, now get back to the book.

Asha is a conundrum. When we meet her she is a champion dragon hunter, ruthless and successful without being respected, but the lies have created a persona for her that doesn’t actually fit. Inside that persona she is a lot tougher than outside, but of course (in true story fashion) she has to step outside it to grow as a person.

There is also the philosophical problem of when does a simple recital of facts become a story? Stories are outlawed, but what happens if someone simply asks how your day went? Does it become a story the moment you throw in a slight exaggeration or a bit of imagery? But if stories are made up, what is the difference between a story and an outright lie? Asha herself has an instinctive grasp of this: at a key moment, she summons a dragon simply by describing her present situation – but putting it into the third person and past tense. The fact that her present situation is rather a life and death moment, and she has been through a heck of a lot to get there, adds weight to the story. Maybe that’s why it’s not a lie.

A good story, of course, has a logic that all of its characters must obey, and that goes for Asha too. The ending is bittersweet, with bad banished and good restored but Asha now beyond the pale of her own home due to some of the decisions she has made. In as nice a case of sequel setup as I ever saw, she is exiled, moving on into unfamiliar territory, finding her own story but leaving all the context she has ever known behind. Will the same rules as she worked so hard to determine even still apply in a new land? It will be interesting to see how well Ciccarelli introduces her to pastures new, but I suspect it’s going to work.