The Last Witness is an ingenious novella, as one would expect from K. J. Parker: a compelling story and a fascinating protagonist set in a world that is both hauntingly archaic and strikingly familiar.
We all heard about you, the old man said, the stuff you can do. Is it true?
Depends on what you’ve heard, I told him. Most of what people say about me is garbage.
I think he expected me to be more businesslike. Is it true, he said, that you can read people’s minds?
No, I told him, I can’t do that, nobody can, not even the Grand Masters. That would be magic, and there’s no such thing. What I can do (I said quickly, before I tried his patience too far) is get inside people’s heads and take their memories.
The unassuming, unnamed narrator can enter a person’s mind and see memories lined up like scrolls in a library. He’s always able to find exactly what is wanted (or unwanted, as it were), and take the memory in question. The memory then becomes his, whether it be a remembrance or an ability, such as mastery of a musical instrument, and he never forgets – his mind is so full of memories that he sometimes isn’t sure which are his and which came from others.
Sometimes his clients want to forget, and sometimes they want someone else to forget. And yes, he does this for money. A lot of money.
But he also has a code of ethics, never divulging what he sees in someone’s mind, whether it be shameful, painful, or murderous. Occasionally, he becomes rich, but he rarely puts down roots: because of what he knows, folks often want him dead. And just as often he is on the run due to his own personal demons.
As far as he knows, he’s the only person who can do this. That is, until he is asked to enter the mind of a young girl who instead, finds her way into his own mind. Before she can do anything, he shuts her down, but he runs very far afterwards. And that still doesn’t keep her from showing up in his dreams.
The Last Witness is a quick and compelling read, with an interesting and problematic take on morality. The unnamed narrator keeps us guessing without trying to mislead, and his take on the world – and how the world tries to take from him – is intriguing. There are twists and turns to the story, but no trickery; it simply is an interesting take on a singular possibility. Highly recommended.