What would you erase, if you could? What memories would you cut from your mind? Why would you do it? To be happier? To forget someone or something who’d hurt you? Or someone you’d hurt? What if there was someone you could pay to do it for you?
What if you paid them to erase all knowledge of them from your mind?
What sort of person would do that?
KJ Parker knows the answers and shows us in this, the chilliest, grimmest entry in the Tor novella line to date.
The story here, at first, is deceptively simple. In a fantasy world in the middle of an enthusiastically polite Cold War, there’s a man who can remove memories. Any memories. From anyone. Every time he does it he sees the same thing; a wall of scrolls. He always knows which scroll to take, and when he does, you forget.
It’s not a good job, or a good life. He gambles, he’s tormented by the memories he’s taken on and the only way out is down. Until he takes the wrong job and finds himself forced to face up, not only to who he really is, but what the consequences of his actions truly are.
If it seems like I’m being obtuse here that’s because I am. Parker’s story unfolds with absolute confidence and is never once trustworthy. The lead, and he does get a name, of sorts, is an editor set loose in everyone’s texts. He’s charming, witty, ruthless, tragic and horrific. If a man is the sum of his memories, this man is the sum of EVERYONE’s memories.
As the story goes on, we find out just how much that’s cost him and Parker drops some remarkably subtle worldbuilding into the mix. The Cold War at the heart of the story starts turning hot as a consequence of the lead’s actions but we never see that. Just his employers, never quite letting him go, never quite realizing just how dangerous he is. It’s a smart move and makes the second half feel a lot like the lead’s opposition are coming in from their own, labyrinthine political thriller to mess with him. There are wheels within wheels here, scrolls within scrolls and the lead is never in as much control as he thinks he is.
The Last Witness is yet another fantastic entry in Tor’s novella line. It’s cold and malicious in a precise, measured way that few fantasy stories aim for and fewer still hit. It’s not even a little cheerful, and will haunt you, but not as much as it haunts its leading man. Another immensely strong entry in Tor’s novella line and another must read.