For years, the actual identity of K. J. Parker has been something of an open secret. There was a general buzz that "Parker" was a pseudonym for the British comedic fantasy author Tom Holt, but there was never enough information for anyone to draw any conclusions, and those who did know weren't telling. This past April, Holt himself put an end to the speculation by publicly coming out as Parker on The Coode Street Podcast. Looking over Holt's body of work, it is understandable why most people did not make the connection.
The novels and short stories Holt has written under the Parker label do not draw as much from his fantasy farces as they do from his forays into historical fiction. As an example, his early Walled Orchard duology, consisting of Goatsong (1989) and The Walled Orchard (1990), showcases many of the stylistic and thematic concerns that would go on to appear in Parker's work. The duology itself is a fictional memoir of the comedic playwright Eupolis, a historical figure who lived and wrote in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. In Holt's telling, Eupolis is a sarcastic ass, one who looks at the established wisdom of the day with askance, but who is not quite as smart as he imagines himself to be. As he is drafted into the Athenian army to participate in (and narrowly escape from) the horrific failure of the Sicilian campaign, and as he watches Athens' collapse and defeat by Sparta, his story ruminates on the horror and idiocy of war and politics. While often funny, there is a despair to the Walled Orchard books, a suspicion that the whole process of civilization is nothing more than an endless play of greed, hubris, cruelty, and misplaced good intentions, and that no matter how much technology changes or which philosophy is in fashion, the game remains the same.
Since the start of the Fencer trilogy in 1998, every book Holt has written under the Parker name has dealt with these concerns in a variety of contexts. From the family squabbles that bring down nations in the Fencer trilogy, to the questions of memory and historical impact of the Scavenger books, to the father's homemade toy that leads to war and revolutions in the Engineer trilogy, the same concerns and themes arise again and again. While padded trilogies are the bane of today's fantasy market, Parker's greatest successes have always been with longer work. In Parker's best stories there is a palpable sense of weight, a sense that the stories are not describing people, but great historical processes that are grinding into peoples and places with the force of continents, an effect that can only be achieved with the mass of thousands of pages. As a result, Parker's move towards shorter fiction, beginning with The Company in 2008, has always felt like a misstep. Single novels do not have the space for much narrative accumulation, so emphasis has shifted to twists that recontextualize the novel. The profusion of novels, novellas, and short stories has also led to another issue: when you use the same themes, settings, and character types over and over again, people start to see the wires.
It is this latter problem that affects The Last Witness, Parker's latest novella. The story is, at heart, another iteration of the Walled Orchard's memoir of a wiseass. This time around, the wiseass is an unnamed man who has the ability to steal the memories of other people and incorporate them into himself. At the opening of the story, the narrator has turned his ability into a useful trade, hiring himself out to people who wish to forget, or who want others to forget for them. The pay is good, even if most of it vanishes in the gambling dens. While most of the story is dedicated to the narrator describing himself and his life, a thread of plot emerges after he is engaged by a father-son pair of noblemen with ambitions of city leadership. As he is drawn deeper into their machinations, the narrator begins to have visions of a young woman whose face he can't place but who seems to wish him ill.
For longtime readers of K. J. Parker, there is a lot in The Last Witness that is familiar. The narrator, a self-deceiving man of cunning who contrives to escape to a simpler life, is practically a Parker trademark by this point. The setting, a milieu of small city-states with Grecian names and a possibly medieval technological level, is the standard setting used for all of Parker's work. The method used to steal memories is described using the same sort of "magic-as-a-house" metaphor Parker has used to describe magical processes in earlier books. Even the novella's central concern, the mutability of memory and its effect on others, is something that was explored at far great length in the Scavenger trilogy.
Still, Parker's work has always been more in the business of serving as an exploration of some particular philosophical concept than that of creating dynamic new worlds. Indeed, with such goals, having a set of readymade concepts in a toolbox is a useful thing to have. Unfortunately, rather than combining these elements into something new and startling, The Last Witness just goes where other stories have gone before. The plot follows the classic Parker model: a man with power enriches himself and treats others poorly, tries to escape the consequences of his actions by fleeing to a simpler life, only to be eventually punished by the fates for his actions. While the memory theft conceit is explored in some detail, the treatment feels lackluster.
Early on, there are a few promising leads. At times, the narrator compares his work to that of a priest, noting that both of them have the job of accepting and holding the sinful memories of others, though, unlike a priest, the narrator does not consider his work an ethical duty. Later on, the narrator bristles at being celebrated as a great flautist, as he stole most of his talent from a dying musician and merely added a few stylistic innovations of his own, raising questions concerning the nature of originality. However, the ultimate revelation of the story is that the narrator was using his ability to hide a number of unsavory facts about his past from both himself and the reader, a plot point reused from almost every Parker story ever written.
Overall, then, there is not much done with the concept that hasn't been done in either older stories or in Parker's previous work. At times, the toolbox even seems to clamp down on the implications of the premise. While having portions of memory removed or inserted would naturally result in sudden, violent personality shifts, the narrator mostly speaks and thinks in a consistent manner throughout the whole story, with the only clues being odd reactions to certain stimuli that go unremarked. Ultimately, the limitations of the K. J. Parker toolbox are what keep The Last Witness from reaching its full potential.
Perhaps it is best to look at K. J. Parker's move into short fiction as an experimental phase, as an attempt by Holt to try out the voice of K. J. Parker in an different form with different topics without having to devote the time and effort necessary for a full-blown novel. The fact that The Last Witness does not quite work may be a tragedy, but not a major one; it is in the nature of experiments to fail. Indeed, with the recent work on the serialized novel The Two of Swords, it may be that Holt is returning to the longer stories that produced some of Parker's best work. Parker's stories need space to set all their parts in motion; in shorter works, the best that can done is a quick joke that doesn't always pay off.