An interesting short fantasy about memory and guilt
When you need a memory to be wiped, call me.
Transferring unwanted memories to my own mind is the only form of magic I’ve ever mastered. But now, I’m holding so many memories I’m not always sure which ones are actually mine, any more.
Some of them are sensitive; all of them are private. And there are those who are willing to kill to access the secrets I’m trying to bury…
I’ve had a rather mixed history with K.J. Parker’s novels. There’s never been any doubt that he is a great writer, but sometimes his novels have felt too plodding for my taste. With his short fiction, however, I have had a completely different experience. I loved The Devil You Know, another novella published by Tor.com, for example. Each new piece of Parker fiction I read, I become ever-more impressed at his creative range.
The Last Witness is an intriguing fantasy novella, with an interesting concept: what if there was someone who could completely take away memories? How might this person’s skills be monetized? (Especially if said person was… not the most moral of citizens.)
I think of the two of his novellas published by Tor.com, I found The Devil You Know to be a much better story — the pacing and characters were more engaging and gripping. The Last Witness is a different kind of story, in some ways, and given the nature of the narrator’s talent means the character’s experiences can become slightly muddled. After all, if you take someone else’s memory and it becomes your own, your impression of yourself and your past will become confused. This makes him an incredibly unreliable narrator, as I’m sure you can imagine.
It’s interesting, too, to wonder what type of person the narrator might have been if he didn’t have this gift? If our experiences shape us, then how might many other people’s change the way we develop emotionally? The novella throws up a lot of questions about identity, and also the fickle nature of memory. Towards the end, a character is thrown into the mix who presents a real challenge and threat to our narrator, which adds yet more uncertainty about what we have read.
Parker’s prose is excellent throughout, and his gift with language is on full display. Mostly, it’s just so refreshing to read an author who not only has command of the language, but also does not evince a need to show off. There are wonderful turns of phrase, sometimes cheeky and sly, but always clear and accessible.
“At the time I was not well off for money, as a result of some unsatisfactory experiments into certain aspects of probability theory.”
It’s a short story, which does mean Parker doesn’t give himself much room to flesh out the characters — main and supporting cast — as much as I would have liked. The concept dominates the story, of course (and understandably). I wonder if this would have benefited from being both longer and, perhaps, having a second perspective character?
If you are already a fan of Parker’s work, I’d highly recommend you read this (if you haven’t already). If you are new to his work, then I’d probably suggest The Devil You Know first.