Review: The Last Witness by K. J. Parker
Also by this author: The Folding Knife
Published by Tor.com on October 6th 2015
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...
A classic Parker tale with a strong supporting cast of princes, courtiers, merchants, academics, and generally unsavory people.
The Last Witness by K. J. Parker is dark and deceitful, yet addictive novella. These two aspects are spun together for a truly fascinating story and one hell of a protagonist that you might not like, but you can’t help but want to know more about. It’s a book that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of humanity, it actually relishes in it. I’ve only read one other book by Parker, but I feel this story was every bit as intriguing as The Folding Knife and has reinforced my need to read more by the author.
While I loved The Folding Knife (review), I have been a bit embarrassed that I have not read another book by Parker. When I read this description, and then saw the cover, it jumped to my Must Read list. I mean really, in that cover, you can’t help but wonder if she is going to kiss the guy, or if she is going to stab him, or maybe both? And with limited exposure I have had to Parker, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were both. Regardless, I had to read it to find out.
The narrator has the unique ability to enter someone’s mind and remove their memories. This can be to relieve a person of unbearable memories, or perhaps to clear a witness of potentially damaging knowledge. The catch here though, is that these memories then become his own. Since it is usually not happy, loving memories that people have removed, he is left with countless disturbing, graphic memories that can be haunting. And while the narrator never forgets a detail, he can sometimes lose track of which memories are his own versus which are memories he has taken from others. This provides an interesting perspective for the reader, as the distinction between his memories and someone else’s is quite important. This said, if the narrator has trouble keeping things straight, obviously so can the reader.
He has put his service up for hire, and as you can imagine, the types of people who look to alter memories are not usually the most upstanding citizens. It also makes for some interesting dynamics in that clearing a witness of the memories of a crime essentially makes him a witness. There are individuals some who may hire him not for nefarious reasons, but rather to release their life of painful memories. But even those people still leave him with memories of horrific things, things that they felt their life would be better never knowing or seeing, he now has to face regularly.
History and memory are funny things. If no one remembers something, it can be the same as if that forgotten event never happened. The ties between history and memory are explored in The Last Witness, showing how a change in one can impact the other. I love the whole theme of memory and history being tied and altering one to essentially alter the other. History is just the story told after, it is not necessarily the truth, or particularly the whole truth. Perspective plays a critical role in how history is written and having the ability to alter someone’e recollection of events can greatly impact things. And I don’t even necessarily mean large changes, but personal history and experience shapes who a person is, modifying that can impact a person’s life.
The narrator is, well, maybe a bit less than reliable. Actually, I think he may be about the most unreliable narrator I’ve encountered. But I think this makes him fascinating. This is a novella that will stick with me long after reading (much like The Folding Knife). Also, like The Folding Knife, this is not a fast paced story, but it is one that captivated me from start to end. This is a story that grabs you with the concept and the characters, a novella that shows no mercy, and while feeling entirely complete, also leaves me wanting to read more. Highly recommend.