An excellent new mystery novella about memory
When a woman with perfect memory sets out to solve a riddle, the threads she tugs on could bring a whole city crashing down. The God-King who made her is at risk, and his other servants will do anything to stop her.
To become the God-King’s Amanuensis, Manet had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and mind to the peak of human performance. She remembers everything that has happened to her, in absolute clarity, a gift that will surely drive her mad. But before she goes, Manet must unravel a secret which threatens not only the carefully prepared myths of the God-King’s ascent, but her own identity and the nature of truth itself.
I’ve been a fan of Daniel Polansky’s writing ever since his debut, The Straight Razor Cure, was published in the UK. The Seventh Perfection is his second novella for Tor.com (following the superb The Builders), and I’m very happy to report that it absolutely met my very high expectations.
Polansky takes an interesting and — in my experience — unusual approach to this novella. Nothing you read is said by the protagonist, but it’s all from her perspective. The novella is made up of only one side of each conversation and exchange. It is an incredibly effective story-telling technique, and builds a fascinating picture of the protagonist — especially because none of it filtered through Manet’s own thoughts, experiences, or prejudices.
Given Manet’s nature as amanuensis, one could expect her character to be subsumed a bit by the requirement to remember everything — however, she nevertheless feels like a fully realized character, as seen through her exchanges and interactions with others. We get a sense of her growing urgency, impatience, and frustration as she interrogates others for small nuggets of the truth. We gather from others’ words and reactions elements of her personality that are as effective (perhaps more so) than in a more regular-style narrative. Here’s a favourite example, when Manet is struggling to get the responses and information that she thinks she needs and wants: “the way you hold your eyes as if you might eat the person you’re staring at…”
It’s an interesting and very well-executed premise: the all-remembering amanuensis of the god, hunting for the identify of a single woman who she cannot remember. As Manet moves from one exchange to another, we learn more about her and her role, as well as where she lives, the social make-up of where she lives, the mythology and some history of this world, and the myriad denizens of the city.
As she unravels the mystery, her unrelenting quest for the truth leads her to take risks and chances that imperil her standing and life. Not only that, there are rumblings about the city — there’s growing unrest, tension that could boil over at any time.
“… this truth you seek imperils the safety and stability of millions. You think to gamble their prosperity against the interests of your own mad quest? You would put some abstract virtue above their health and safety?”
The novella is a really interesting examination of memory — how it can trick us, or fail us, and how gaps can inspire anxiety. But also what it means to have a supposedly perfect memory. Manet’s memory is also not quite the same as a regular person’s, and gathering from the comments of those who speak with her, contains a certain detachment from the events that are remembered. Here’s an example:
“What a terrible thing it must be, never to forget. You don’t realize it yet because you haven’t lost anything, or anything that matters. But you will, that alone is a certainty. What torment, to recall perfectly the line of your breasts once they have come to wither, the musk of every lost lover. Your first sip of wine, the roar of your first crowd, the laugh of a dead friend. The way the sun hit the beach that day, when he came out of the waves shaking his hair and smiling, you and he and nothing else, wanting everything to end in that second, the world snapped shut like an old purse. They have cursed you, girl. They have ruined you.”
If you haven’t read anything by Polansky yet, then I highly recommend you do so. Either of his novellas would be great places to start, if you don’t want to commit to a full-length novel. However, I’m pretty sure that after reading either The Builders or The Seventh Perfection, you’ll go right out to get his novels.
Polansky remains one of the best authors writing speculative fiction, and I can’t recommend his work highly enough. A must read.