The Last Witness, K. J. Parker

tl;dr: A fantastically unreliable narrator; a twisty and intricate plot containing many machinations; a short but intensely KJ Parkery introduction to political fantasy author KJ Parker.

The subtitle for every KJ Parker novel, including this Tor novellaย The Last Witness might be, The Death of All Hope. Be warned of this before you go in. A lot of things will happen, you will experience feelings of suspense, and at the end, nobody you care about will get anything they want. Or if they do, they will find it is a cold and hollow victory.

The Last Witness
The Last Witness: Death of All Hope, by KJ Parker [not its real subtitle]
Anyway, if you’re unsure about KJ Parker (like maybe you have appreciated the notion of a premise but you are not quite so sure about this Death of All Hope business), this novella could be a good place to start.1 The protagonist has a particular skill: He can look at a person’s face and find himself inside the library of their memory; and once there, he can remove any memory he wants. The person no longer has that memory. Our protagonist has it, instead.

What’s forgotten might as well never have existed. Think of that. If there are no witnesses, did it really ever happen?

You know, of course. Even after the last witness has died, you still remember what you did.

That’s why you need me.

If you cannot abide uncertainty in your reading, The Last Witness may not be your book. The plot is told in a nonlinear way, for one thing, leaping about from one era of the narrator’s life to the other with only a line break ornament for a warning. For another thing, the protagonist is wildly unreliable, in all the best ways. He leaves things out, sometimes. He is trying to mislead, sometimes. The memories he relates do not always belong to him. The memories he relates do not always include relevant details.

Per usual with KJ Parker, the story throws a lot of balls in the air, and keeps introducing new ones into the act. Halfway through, I was sure there were too many elements in play for the book to resolve them all in a satisfying way. But then, of course, KJ Parker pulled them all together in an inimitably KJ Parker kind of way, where some things that had seemed trivial became all-important, and some things that had seemed inescapable became utterly trivial.

(In other news, I am loving this new line of Tor novellas! Thanks, Tor! You’re doing great work! I shall read Sorcerer of the Wildeeps next!)

Some other reviews: Strange Horizons, Bookworm Blues, SF Bluestocking, The BiblioSanctum, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews

And a question for you! Whenever I read KJ Parker, I am reminded of how much I love reading about the ins and outs of political machinations (Megan Whalen Turner is also very strong on this). Do you have any book recommendations along those lines, that really get into the (fictional or nonfictional) political trenches?

  1. That is what happened to me. Memory convinced me to read Parker’s novella Purple and Black, and then I discovered I like KJ Parker’s writing style more than I disliked the Death of All Hope.
  • Lisa

    The Vorkosigan saga by Lois Bujold has a lot of politics woven into the stories both on the homeworld, and on the different neighboring planets. One of the main characters is successively regent for child Emperor, then Prime Minister, then Viceroy of a colony planet, though a lot of that goes on in the background. I just read the latest book in the series, so I am all Vorkosigan minded right now.

    • Okay! I have heard a ton about Bujold from other bloggers, and for some reason have been resistant to reading her work. I don’t know why! I will give her a try!

  • Oh, oh, fantasy byzantine political stuff: The Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat. I haven’t posted my review yet, but it is wonderful, even though it starts out (in the beginning of book one) as kind of horrible and you think, oh no way. But get past that short awful (in terms of description of what is going on, not in terms of writing) beginning and it is a very rewarding read, both in terms of political twists and turns, and uplifting romance. I raced right through all three books! (and yay for finding a trilogy that is ALREADY ALL THE WAY PUBLISHED! LOL)

  • There’s also the Chalion books (which are straight fantasy) by Lois McMaster Bujold. And the Lumatere books by Melina Marchetta, starting with Finnikin of the Rock. Very political those are. And I’ve been intrigued by descriptions of some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, like The Lions of Al-Rassan, though I haven’t read them yet. Oh, and what about the Lion Hunters series by Elizabeth Wein? They’re not exactly fantasy, though they are (loosely!) based on Arthurian myth. And you MUST read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, which is technically sci-fi, but is totally speculative politics (what if there was a planet where anarchy was really practiced?) and is terrific. OK, I’ll stop now.

    • Maureen E

      Seconding EWein’s Lion Hunter books! And Chalion.

    • NEVER STOP, these are wonderful. I read and loved the Lumatere books, I enjoyed a lot of things about the one Guy Gavriel Kay book I read (although I also had some reservations), and haven’t read any of the others. I will definitely read The Dispossessed — I have never found my way into Ursula K. LeGuin (terrible, I know!), and I’m always hoping to be able to love her.

  • Maureen E

    Not sure what you’ve already read, so just recommending!
    The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: Sci-fi, lots and lots of politics and negotiations
    The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
    Hild by Nicola Griffith (historical fiction but kind of feels like fantasy)
    The Flora trilogy by Ysabeau Wilce

    • Oh man, thanks for these! The only one I’ve read in your list is The Goblin Emperor — which I love love loved for all the machinations it contained. I’m on it!

  • Jenny

    This one sounds very good but maybe a bit confusing. Plus novellas are not my favorite. But I do love Tor.

    • Novellas aren’t my favorite EITHER, which is why I’m particularly excited about having read two now, from Tor’s line, that I’ve really enjoyed. Dip into them sometime! See what you think!

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Why have I not heard of Parker before? This sounds soo good! Placed a hold on it at the library. He has lots of other books too, many series. Do you have a favorite? As for politics, MK Wren’s Phoenix Trilogy is marvelous. Also LeGuin The Dispossessed. Leckie’s Ancillary books are full of politics but I think you read those? I thought the first and second Game of Thrones books were fabulous on the politics of power and then it all goes to pot after that.

    • A favorite? I liked the siege trilogy a lot, I think, of which the first was Devices and Desires. And my first exposure to his work was Purple and Black, which still remains a very strong one — and short! So if you’re going to start anywhere, that or The Last Witness would both give you a pretty good idea of what he’s about as a writer.

      You’re the second person to rec The Dispossessed, so I’ll absolutely be checking that one out. I agree about the first two Game of Thrones books before everything got highly disorganized. And I’ve never even heard of MK Wren! Adding to the list!

  • I love novellas, and unreliable narrators. Looks like I am going to cheat on #Readmyowndamnbooks to buy this. I hope Andi is not reading this comment. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Kailana

    Memory got me to BUY KJ Parker and then I still haven’t read anything!!!!

    • Aw! Well, at least you have his books handy, so when you do decide it’s time, you’ll be set to go!

  • Jeanne

    Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress gets into political machinization in the second half of the book. The author worked on several political campaigns in his youth and middle age.

    • Excellent, thanks! I want to read a Heinlein book, having failed at getting through Stranger in a Strange Land, so maybe that one will suit me better.

  • I like the premise and am always fascinated by unreliable narrators. I’m not fond of novellas, but you’ve certainly aroused my curiosity about this one.

    • I’m not either! For what it’s worth, I’m not either. But Tor.com has won me over with the excellence of their novella line.

  • Nishita

    Ooh! I’ve never heard of this writer, but these books sound really good. Love that premise. Also you got some great recommendations in the comments. So many books added to my TBR, just like that ๐Ÿ˜€

  • Citizen Reader

    The librarian in me has to ask–are these books similar to George R. R. Martin’s? Those are also considered political fantasy and nobody ends up (really) getting anything they want in those, either, do they? (I’ve read the first one but never had time to read the rest.)
    Thanks for highlighting this author–sounds like someone I would like, if I ever again get two whole minutes in a row to read a new author…

  • Aarti

    I read one of Parker’s books that was set on an island with a decaying aristocratic family and then other people. I think it was called The Hammer. I agree, it was really good reading but pretty much about the Death of All Hope. I didn’t read more by the author (did they ever figure out who the mysterious writer is?), but I would!

    I agree on the political machinations! You’ve read The Goblin Emperor, right? I feel like that was a good stand-alone that did it. For whatever reason, it’s always fantasy that seems to do it well ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I have to say – I just love this cover. Has a very Prince of Persia feel about it. That alone is reason enough for me to want to try this.

  • I haven’t yet read anything by K.J. Parker, but this does definitely sound like an author I should look into. To me, a satisfying story is better than the happiest ending (I’m one of those journey-prior-to-destination fans) so this does sound like a novella I might enjoy. As far as political fantasy recommendations, I keep thinking about Acacia: The War with the Mein (and its trilogy) by David Anthony Durham, which not only has exceptional worldbuilding, but it also has a lot of politics going on as well. I keep meaning to review it, but it does take some time to read it (it has a slower paced plot).
    ~Litha Nelle