Wednesday, 1 June 2005

Memory

K. J. Parker
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-172-1


Having fled the Empire for the island he grew up on, the amnesiac Poldarn had hoped to find some peace among his people. It was not to be, his past catching up with him most unpleasantly, and after spreading death, destruction and misery to his family and childhood friends Poldarn returns to the mainland.

No longer interested in discovering the truth of his identity, all he wants now is to find some quiet corner of the world where he can live out his days and die without causing any more pain. But havoc seems to follow Poldarn around like a dog tailing its master, and the quiet foundry where he finds himself shaping bells is about to become the centre of a conflict between the faltering Empire and the fanatical followers of the Mad Monk.

With old enemies on both sides and too many people remembering him as a major player, he can do little to avoid the repercussions of his forgotten acts. As the pieces begin to fall into place and the truth is finally revealed, all Poldarn can do is trust nobody and pray he’ll make it through.

With some small mysteries cleared up at the end of this trilogy’s second book, ‘Memory’ is nonetheless left with a veritable shoal of enigmas to explain. Parker has done a remarkable job of keeping the reader guessing as to Poldarn’s true identity, hints falling like raindrops throughout the series. Such is the bewildering complexity of the narrative that at several points it seems Poldarn could have been almost every character in the trilogy, even some of the ones he has personally met since his memory was lost!

Yet despite this twisted mix of betrayals and red herrings, mysteries and misery, ‘Memory’ retains its plausibility. The supernatural aspect of Poldarn’s past that had such importance in the first book is present here again, a barrage of hints as to Poldarn’s divinity seeming to speak most ominously of some feeble deus ex machina to come. Thankfully that disappointment is avoided, and though the final revelation stretches coincidence to breaking point it is nonetheless both probable and satisfying, hindsight and re-reading allowing the reader to spot enough foreshadowing among the misdirection that the concluding twists never seem unnatural.

Unlike in the first two books, ‘Memory’ suffers occasionally from a decline in the quality of the dialogue towards the end of the novel exposition begins to take over, the natural and flowing speech that Parker excels at vanishing into a fog of revelatory monologues. It is a small flaw, however, one made necessary by the concluding nature of the book, and the answers exposed within such speeches more than make up for any small loss of authenticity. Regardless, Parker’s dialogue is for most of the book as snappy and natural as ever. Together with the unusual perspective the author projects onto everyday occurrences, this gives ‘Memory’ a slick and enjoyable style that seems curiously at odds with its often-disturbing content.

For this is certainly no children’s book. I don’t mean that it is filled with excessively graphic depictions of violence or contains steamy sex scenes – rather that the themes and actions of the characters can be deeply unpleasant. There are no heroes within K.J. Parker’s trilogy, least of all Poldarn himself. Like the author’s other books, ‘Memory’ is populated by characters whose attempts to do the right thing often create terrible tragedies and force them into monstrous deeds. Poldarn’s lost memories are filled with horrors both psychological and societal, but it is a tribute to Parker’s characterisation that the reader doesn’t lose their sympathy for the characters involved. If anything such sympathies are strengthened, as one can see just what would force people to such desperate and terrible feats.

If ‘Memory’ has one real fault, it lies in the first half of the book. Too long is spent building up the tension with seemingly innocuous events, too much emphasis placed on the minutiae of Poldarn’s work at the foundry. The author’s biography mentions a history of craftsmanship and it’s reasonable that such intimate knowledge be used to grant his writing authenticity. What isn’t reasonable is to burden one’s reader with the mundane, however it conveys Poldarn’s achievement in finding a boring little corner of the world to hide in. Such a desire for realism is laudable, but in this case it detracts from the flow of the story towards its terrible climax.

In conclusion, ‘Memory’ is the best of the Scavenger Trilogy and a fine book in its own right. Those struggling with the exceedingly complex first and second books should be reassured – it’s all worth it in the end. Clever, evocative and enjoyable, ‘Memory’ is apart from the occasional niggling flaw a lesson in how to write the third act of any story. It has a place of honour on my ‘how to do endings right’ shelf, and is good enough to make me seek out any of its author’s work I may have missed. Intelligent mysteries are so hard to find these days, but Parker’s work is one of the best.


This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com