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 novella 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.