Book review: The Last Witness, by K J Parker

26 10 2017

K J Parker is the pen name of English speculative fiction writer Tom Holt, and vice versa. As Tom Holt, Parker has written humorous novels such as Blonde Bombshell and Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages, while as K J Parker, Holt has penned several connected (and sometimes World Fantasy Award-winning) fantasy trilogies and series.

TheLastWitness

The unnamed protagonist in The Last Witness (in fact, having read the book, I have the distinct impression that nobody within it is ever actually named—instead, they’re identified as ‘the old man’, ‘the skinny girl’, ‘the ambassador’, etc) has the singularly useful ability to extract, absorb, and erase any selected memory from another person’s mind. This ensures that he has a lucrative career as a sort of human disinfectant, able to expunge items of knowledge which could be hazardous to the careers of the wealthy and the ambitious—for example, evidence of unauthorised payments, of criminal guilt, or other problematic details. The problem with this arrangement is, of course, that although he makes it a matter of principle never to disclose a confidence gleaned through such cranial spycraft, the kind of person willing to pay for his services to expunge a vexatious memory from someone else’s head are unlikely to have too many qualms about paying for somebody to expunge the vexatious memory from his head, using more traditional approaches …

The book’s ‘hero’ is about as unlikeable as it’s possible for a character to be—cowardly, manipulative, cruel, horrendously wasteful, extremely self-centred and sometimes criminally stupid—yet still has some appeal, largely through (so far as we can tell) his honesty. He’s upfront, too, about how much we can (or can’t) trust him, because he cannot always be sure whether the memories he holds are his own. One of the intriguing questions posed by the book is whether a murderer’s guilt (for example) resides with the memory, or with the practitioner: just because the protagonist can remember having murdered people (and therefore possesses the skill set required to perform such acts in the future), is he responsible for the deaths he can remember? It’s this type of question he ponders, while the metaphorical noose tightens around him as previous clients look to eliminate the last ‘loose end’.

This is an entertaining, wry, sometimes-confusing novella where ‘memory’—mutable, unreliable, potentially deadly—is as much a character as anyone else. The lack of nominative detail plays into the sense of precarious remembrance that’s at the story’s core. While characters are sufficiently plainly drawn and individual, one can’t always recognise them when one meets them a second time on the pages. This potential for confusion mirrors the circumstance that, while the protagonist’s openness about his past seems at times confessional (and as an aside, there’s an intriguing exploration of the role of the confessional and the consequent horribleness of priests’ memories), his uncertainty about the provenance of certain chunks of personal backstory ensures that he is the quintessential unreliable narrator.

Having not read any of Parker’s other writing (beyond a couple of stories in ASIM), I’m not sure how snugly this one fits into his larger body of work: it may be a complete singleton with no connection to any of his novels, or it may feature a setting already familiar to readers of his books. In any case, it’s an effective introduction to Parker’s richly (yet unostentatiously) realised fantasy settings.

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One response

26 10 2017
skylerboudreau

Awesome review! I’ll definitely have to check this one out.

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