Memory - K. J. Parker

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Book Three of the Scavenger Trilogy
K J Parker
Orbit, large format pb
ISBN: 1841491713 (Amazon link)

This is a very hard novel to review; there are two main problems:
(1) Memory is book three of a trilogy, and unless one has read Shadow and Pattern this is of little interest.
(2) I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but such is the nature of the plot in this trilogy that almost everything I can say is a spoiler!

KJ Parker has a previous trilogy out; Colours in the Steel, The Belly of the Bow, The Proof House. I didn't care for it much although it was better than most EFP. It suffered from heavy info-dumping and a lack of coherence in the plot.

I filed Parker under 'Come back to later' and I'm glad I did. Shadow starts with a man waking up in the mud with no memory. The trilogy concerns his quest to find out who he is, but as all the signs are that he was someone Bad, this swiftly turns into a novel about a man running away from his past and wanting to find a new identity for himself.

Except that life is never that simple. Firstly, he's beset by two mystic problems - talking crows, an abundance of crows in fact. They talk to him in dreams. A lot. They pervade his dreams, and his dreams are the second mystic problem. In his dreams he lives other people's lives. Or his own in memory. Or his future. It's all very unclear. But there are always crows in these dreams.

Then there are the practical problems. Whoever he is, he was someone important in some sense. Or is he? No-one ever recognises him, and yet various parties seem very interested in getting hold of him, and he seems to stir up trouble everywhere he goes.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. There's a minor problem with the dreams. He appears to be the God who will come to bring the end of the world. Usually associated with crows, fire and the forge. Did I mention Poldarn, the name given to him by a woman he befriends, is a blacksmith? At any rate he can smith. Oh, yes, and Poldarn is the name of the God. But that means nothing, since it was the woman who named him.

It's an interesting world he lives in. There is a power struggle going on in his part of the world, with a commercial house/warlord vying for power with the emperor, and the imperial army's ambitious general. All this is revolving around a backdrop of raiders from the islands to the west - murderous savages who sweep in, murder everyone, and vanish again. They use a distinctive style of sword. Poldarn appears to know how to use it... and how to forge it.

But then the whole world is pervaded with religion, and in this world 'religion' means a particular form of study associated with the sword-monks, who devote their life to the art of drawing a sword in no time. The perfection of the divine lives in that gap between the draw and the kill, and the religious mind understands that there is no time there. So, being practical, for this is a VERY practical book, Poldarn seems to have been a sword monk, for he's dangerous with a blade.

There is no magic in this world, and little to tie it down to a period in our own history. It's a nicely generic backdrop, and Parker delights in having Poldarn, the blank canvas, learn about things. Smithing, charcoal making, sword-fighting. All are infodumped here, but unlike his previous trilogy this is well balanced and interesting. It's all in the context of Poldarn, not his name of course, trying to figure out who the heck he is. Which isn't the same as who he was, but that's of interest too.

And that's the impressive thing. For much of the books we're trying to figure out
(a) who Poldarn was
(b) whether he is the God come to bring the end of the world
(c) what the hell the crows are telling him
(d) who the people in his dreams are
(e) how he appears to have several lives, for he dreams about himself doing things he can't possibly have done, and yet it seems to have been him, is he multiple people?

Did I mention that the crows are important? The ever-present birds are vital to the plot in fact, for in this world the crows share a mind. One flock, one mind. Individual crows are sent out as scouts, but the flock is the thing. This is important, as the raiders, when we come to learn about them, seem to be similar, acting as one community, while poor Poldarn is forever condemned to be the lone scout everywhere due the loss of his memory. Losing all that you were means losing all that you are is a common theme, as is the fact that losing all that you were doesn't change who you are...

It's really infuriating to comment further on this without spoiling, but the ending is satisfying as hell. The very final chapters go a long way to explaining things in retrospect, and while there is a touch of the Super Villain explaining things to Bond, I didn't mind, for the plot needs explaining... even when the pieces slot into place.

It's like doing a jigsaw with no idea what the big picture is. It's like doing a jigsaw in fact where the picture is one of those 3-D stereograms popular a few years ago; concentration is required to make the real picture appear. A superb feat of plotting and characterisation by the author.

The writing is great. She has a unique voice, it is not unlike between the transparent storytelling of someone like Bujold in that there is little in the way of extraneous adjectival flourishes. Mostly, we live in Poldarn's head, or the head of whoever Poldarn is now dreaming, or remembering, he is. Poldarn is very stoic sort, and the constant stream of consciousness is peppered with pithy observations about how the precepts of religion aren't really helping him get out of the muddy swamp etc. Even his mystic revelations via the crows are treated as faintly depressing and annoying chats with someone he'd rather not be bothered with. The humour is dark, but ever-present, and, as you would expect from an educated and religious man, he has a fine eye for pointing out the absurb metaphors for his condition thrown up by the events around him... possibly a trait carried a little too far by the author at times, but still enjoyable.

Let's have a random sample, although without context, most of the series makes little sense, the fun comes from the repetition of events/symbols and slow revelations as we are shown that what was apparent was just mis-direction - er, anyway, sample, Poldarn has been sleeping up in a tree after being chased by soldiers. As usual.

'Comedy,' said a voice next to him.
He opened his eyes. 'I beg your pardon?'
' Comedy,' the crow repeated. 'Both the low comedy of slapstick
and farce - people running about and falling in the mud, the
humiliation of dignity and pomposity in a situation intrinsically
ludicruous, such as getting stuck in a tight place - and the
high comedy of inversion, the world turned topsy-turvy; as in the
man who sleeps by day instead of night, up in the air rather than
down on the ground, who runs away from his friends to seek
sanctuary with his enemy - Actually,' the crow admitted, 'that's
stretching it a little; you're the deadly enemy of crowkind, but
I'm the individual, not the group, and I don't actually own the
tree. Nevertheless, comedy. Also, add the god running away from the
priests - that's a good one.'
'Very good,' Poldarn said yawning; it was broad daylight, and he had
cramp in his back and neck. 'I think I'll wake up now.'
'Don't be silly.' The crow pecked at a slight tangle in its wing
feathers. 'You aren't asleep, this isn't a dream. You never met a
talking crow before?'
Poldarn drew up his knee and massaged it where it was stiff.
'Not that I remember,' he said. 'Except in dreams. Or hallucinations,'
he added in fairness, 'caused by injuries and trauma, like getting
bashed on the head. Did I fall out of the tree or something?'
The crow turned its beak to him. 'Obviously not,' it said, 'since
we're thirty feet off the ground.'
'In that case,' Poldarn said, yawning again, 'it's a dream. Is there
a point to it, or is it just mental indigestion?'
'I don't understand,' said the crow.
'No reason why you should,' Poldarn replied cheerfully.

In a way, this series reminded me a bit of Wolfe's Latro stories. The story is quite different, but the games being played with memory are similar. Poldarn retains his memory since he woke up in the mud, but all he knows is what he's told, and it turns out that almost everyone is lying at some point, either actively, or by omission. This makes for an attentive reader... I suspect this series isn't for everyone, but I really recommend picking up Shadow and if you like it, be assured the rest of the series is worth working through. The ending is not what I expected, and yet I think I like it. A lot.

Highly recommended.

This trilogy has lovely cover art. Plain textured colour with a silhouette of crows. Compare to something like Barclay's Elfsorrow, which I keep avoiding despite good reviews. The covers are putting me off. I am prepared to believe that the text is good, but I'm embarassed to bring the cover to the till.

Update: Given my comments here, it's ironic that Barclay's book's later appeared with very plain monochrome covers, but on buying the first couple I discovered that they were complete and utter crap.

Posted: Sun - April 27, 2003 at 07:40 PM