No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 01, 2003

Memory -- K J Parker

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in September 2003.

Memory, the concluding volume in K J Parker's 'Scavenger' trilogy, opens with Poldarn lost in a wood. This may well be the best place for him. Since waking with amnesia on a battlefield at the beginning of Shadow, he has reconstructed enough of his past - from dreams, from chance-met strangers, from the people of his homeland - to realise that he may have been happier with no memories at all. Whoever Poldarn was before he lost his identity and assumed the name of an apocalyptic deity, he wasn't a nice person. Even the people close to him have been reluctant to tell him everything they know about his past career.

But ignorance is not bliss: far from it, in Parker's world. Post-amnesia Poldarn has always tried to do good; he's acted in self-defence, or to protect others, with the best possible motives. At worst, he's taken the only sensible course of action. In Shadow and Pattern, he rescued a cavalry officer from scavengers, saved his people from a volcano, and married a nice girl from a neighbouring settlement. Regrettably, this is a world where every action seems to have the worst of possible consequences. Poldarn's personal affairs make most of Greek tragedy look like Pollyanna. (Indeed, there are parallels between Poldarn's experiences and that of tragic heroes such as Oedipus).

It's obvious to Poldarn, by the beginning of Memory, that he's better off not knowing who he used to be, and so he buries himself (metaphorically speaking) in the middle of nowhere, using his smithing skills to get work at a bell foundry. Fate, however, has other plans for him. There's a reunion of his schoolmates, which might be a cheerful affair if this were a different novel. Memories and dreams are forced into context as catastrophes. Names and identities are shuffled, cast aside, revealed and obscured again as the mythic tragedy of Poldarn's life draws towards its conclusion.

After all that, it may come as a surprise to learn that this is also a very enjoyable novel. Parker's worlds - compare the magic-less setting of his 'Fencer' trilogy - have no room for the quaint, the archaic or the beautiful. Tolkien's characters wouldn't last a day here, with the possible exception of some of the orcs. If there is anything supernatural - gods, magic, fate - at work in the complex knottings of the narrative, it's kept offstage. Everything can be explained by common sense, a commodity that Parker's characters have in abundance (though it's seldom enough to save them). Their speech is resolutely mundane and their actions selfish, pragmatic and often unsullied by morality.

Parker's novels are firmly rooted in technology, and some will find the long descriptions of medieval smithing techniques unnecessary. They're key to Poldarn's character, though, and keys to the plot as well. The titles of the novels in this trilogy - Shadow, Pattern and Memory - allude to metal-working terms; they're metaphors for the processes by which Poldarn recreates himself, and they encapsulate some of the questions implicit in his situation. How much of his identity is a reaction to the world? Can he free himself from the person he was before he lost his memory? Can he make the decisions that determine his future, or is he being manipulated by others?

The plot is quietly and breathtakingly complex, with dreams and memories echoed throughout the story arc. Parker's attention to detail repays meticulous reading. A couple of casual asides in Memory led me to reread the whole trilogy, an immensely rewarding (if not always cheerful) experience. Perhaps surprisingly, Poldarn is a likeable and sympathetic character, and it's appallingly easy to overlook the swathe of carnage and moral disaster that he leaves behind him. He has more than enough good intentions to pave the road he's walking.

One criticism: the book could have done with more meticulous proofing. There's at least one place where a single incorrect substitution could indicate a whole new sub-plot.