The Last Witness is the latest novella length work from K.J. Parker. It begins with a man who has the capacity to take memories from other people, and transfer them into himself. Given it’s Parker, this quickly ends up being the pivot around a sea of intrigue, moral discussions and the occasional emotional punch in the face.
The world floats somewhere in the shared continuum of Parker’s other works. There’s references to other cities, and shared cultural figures from other books – though nothing more overt than that. But there’s more to see here; the bulk of the story takes place in outcrops of a thriving metropolis – with the assorted gradations of society that this entails. Parker takes us through high society and dark warehouse interrogations with equal skill; the glitter of the jewels at a high society ball contrasting nicely with the occasional splash of blood, There’s not an exhaustive set of world development – but the spaces where the reader finds themselves are well drawn, and in some cases, absolutely ooze atmosphere. I’d say my only complaint is that the locale changes rather frequently, as the protagonist travels through the narrative – it would have helped to look at some of these locations more closely. Still, there’s enough effort here to make each location feel unique, and together they form a rich tapestry of prose which helps us understand the situation of the protagonist.
Speaking of the protagonist – whose name I don’t think I caught throughout – he’s an interesting creature. Normal, apart from the ability to extract the memories of others and store them in his own skull. This makes him an excellent resource for people looking to avoid tax audits, court interrogators, or inconvenient social occasions. The problem here, as the protagonist admits himself, is that having a life filled with other people’s memories makes him question which parts of him are actually, well, his. Parker takes us along on a discussion of the nature of memory, and the question of self. It’s deftly done, and fits integrally into the narrative, but it makes what was a snappy read one that’s also very interesting.
We’re largely restricted to our protagonist’s viewpoint, but Parker makes him a character to remember, so to speak. He’s swathed in moral ambiguity, and relentlessly unapologetic for the things that he does. On the other hand, his narrative is charmingly straightforward and that very lack of apology makes it extremely compulsive reading, with a voice which resonates as much as it repulses. There’s a supporting cast, but with a few exceptions, they serve as adjuncts to our protagonist as he staggers through life – and, in some cases, between lives.
The plot is, even for Parker, rather obscure, or at least, obfuscated. With memory explored as an issue so strongly, the question of what happened, when, and who it happened to becomes rather more pressing than it might otherwise. A first reading gives a suggestion of the way the narrative flows overall, and it’s paced well enough that you’re not going to want to put it down. I suspect, however, that this is a book which will reward multiple readings – to uncover some of the layers that may not have been apparent originally.
Is it worth reading? I’d say so. Parker’s done a superb character study of a man who might be a monster, and wrapped that in a core of moral and social questions. That there’s an intriguing and rather clever story wrapped around that as well, is something of a bonus. It’s not an immediately easy read, but it was a rather rewarding one.