Saturday, 30 January 2016

KJ Parker: The Last Witness

Suddenly, I’m reading pent up stocks of novellas. Partly because the little number badge on my Kindle “unread” collection is worryingly high and novellas are a fast way to get it looking less like a dangerous blood pressure reading. Don’t judge me. So I ripped through the Gameshouse (three more down. Don’t judge me) and swerved into Parker’s The Last Witness. Which I had been putting off for the slightly perverse reason that it was a novella, and so it would be over too quickly and I would be suffering from withdrawal symptoms with no sign of an actual Parker novel this side of the summer.

Instead it turned into a slog of approach avoidance, as Parker’s nameless narrator keeps snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat until I could hardly bear to read another paragraph. Something else would go wrong, and I’d put things down and have a wee think, and then come back to see if things could possibly get worse. Oh yes, of course they can.

The Last Witness turns on the idea that there are people - well one guy, anyhow - who can steal other people’s memories. Since no-one in fiction has ever used a power like that for good, the protagonist has naturally divided his time between using the power to further his own petty crimes, and hiring himself to much bigger criminals to cover up their much bigger crimes. There is no way a plan like this can end well, especially not in KJ Parker world, which exists under a giant arch that says in letters of fire “Your comeuppance begins here”. The tension in Parker’s books is not over whether the protagonists are going to get away with it, but over just how much collateral damage they’re going to do before it all falls around their ears. And Parker is a thorough-going tragedian in the classical mould; every catastrophe proves to have been set in motion by the very person it befalls. His genius [1] lies in how he can get an inexorable doom to come from an unexpected direction which is obvious in hindsight. This normally takes three books, or at least a full length novel, so when he tries to pack it all into a novella, the shocks and misery are compressed into such a tight space that I didn’t feel like there was room left for the poor old reader.

And yet, it’s all pulled off with panache. There’s a gut-wrenching twist right at the end, which is twisted in turn into something still more elegant. There’s also somehow enough room to ponder the problem of who you really are if your head is full of other people’s memories and you’re starting to lose track - or may be never even had track - of which ones you made yourself and which ones you stole. 

Parker can work to any length he feels like, in other words. What he can’t apparently do is figure out how to let anyone outside the US read the rest of his short fiction, which is bundled into a single collection called Academic Exercises that was published in a limited edition of 1000 copies and is now unobtainable, and as a Barnes and Noble e-book which can only be bought with an American credit card. Given the way his mind works, I can only assume that this is a cunning punishment for someone, and that at some point that someone will die and the rest of us can get on with reading the rest of Parker’s work.


[1] it turns out KJ Parker is a guy called Tom Holt. Who has at least two completely different literary identities as Holt together with the whole Parker empire, and presumably never sleeps.

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