Novella Review: The Last Witness by K.J. Parker
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. Any quotes contained within the review are from the advance copy and are subject to change.
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor.com (10/6/15)
Author Information: Website
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
I know I can be quite picky when it comes to short stories and novellas, and in fact there was a time in my life where I simply avoided them all together. I’m big on the immersive reading experience which is something longer novels are in a better position to provide, not to mention characters are also very important to me but it’s less likely I can connect to them when the story is over in a blink of an eye.
But every once in a while, along will come a novella that is so bizarre, so offbeat and so unlike anything I have ever read before, that somehow, against all the odds, it just…works.
The Last Witness by K. J. Parker is such a novella. Its protagonist and narrator is a man with a very special talent. He would be quick to tell you that it is not like mind-reading, not really. What he does is something much more fiddly and delicate. What he can do is enter your mind and take away your memories. A single one or all of them, it doesn’t matter; they would be transferred to his own mind, and it would be like you never had them.
That makes it sound a lot more clear-cut than it is, though. The reality is that things can get a little messy in our narrator’s mind, because all the memories he has ever taken, he retains along with his own. He’s holding so many that he’s not always sure which ones were taken from others and which one are actually his. As you can imagine, that has a profound effect on the narrative.
Also, what would you do if you had an ability like that? Would you use it for good or evil? Our protagonist, who appears to have a dark and mischievous side to him, has decided to let money decide that for him, selling his services to whoever might require them. His clients range from criminals who don’t want anyone to remember their crimes, to traumatized victims who want their bad memories wiped away. Either way, the point is nobody ever asks to get rid of their happy memories. So it’s always the violent, nasty, embarrassing, painful, shameful ones that he has to take away and into himself. And if you’re already someone who’s slightly unhinged, what do think adding that extra load to your psyche does to a person?
The result is a non-linear account of events told through the eyes of a protagonist whom you can’t really count on him to provide a credible narrative. You get also get a sense that he’s not altogether there, or that he’s a twisted guy deep down and all the memories he’s absorbed has only made him even more so. There are moments of clarity in the story, but most of the time you’re also kept guessing – are we still in the character’s present headspace, or are we in a memory? If we are in a memory, is it his or someone else’s? Is it a true memory, or just another “truth” he has created? Because that’s the thing: in addition to his ability to take a memory away, he can also plant seeds of doubt in someone’s mind. If you know someone has been in your head, would you trust what they saw in it? Even if you only half-believed, an innocent comment in passing can sprout into something bigger and change someone’s whole perspective. One of my favorite movies ever, Inception, plays upon this very idea. And our protagonist in The Last Witness, being somewhat of an ass, likes to screw with people the same way, having little to no respect for truths:
“Truth is like love; it’s universally lauded and admired, and most of the time it just causes pain and makes trouble for people.”
Who can blame him, though? To someone who can erase memory and knowledge and history so easily, no wonder truth feels overrated. When you read this, it’s best to brace yourself for a nice little romp through some wild and tangled territory.
I also want to mention that this is the first book I’ve ever read by this author under the name K.J. Parker, even though earlier this year I read a book by Tom Holt, the author behind the pseudonym. After reading The Last Witness, I can really believe the two are one and the same. Though it is completely different from his satirical work, there’s definitely the telltale thread of Holt’s sly and wicked sense of humor lurking beneath the surface. It is a nice, sweet treat.
By all rights I should have found The Last Witness unfulfilling, given the story’s disorganized structure and how impossible it was connect with the character and his haphazard perspective, but it ended up really resonating with me. It’s strange, but in the best way possible – just like this book! The story’s vision was incredible, and K.J. Parker made it work very well. This one gets my recommendation.