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Memory: The Scavenger Trilogy, Book Three

by KJ Parker

(Orbit, £6.99, 572 pages, paperback; October 2003; ISBN: 1841491721.)

The third book in Parker's bleak, mordantly funny Scavenger trilogy gets off to the usual start; a harum-scarum battle in wet, muddy, heavily forested country, cover scanwith no clear lines, no significant issues, little point or purpose and absolutely no 'command or control' in evidence. Victory isn't a matter of clever tactics, valour or a just cause, its all about blind luck, other peoples' stupidity and a fortuitously placed and very sticky bog.

Parker's... well, 'hero' is just the wrong word, isn't it? Let's stick with 'protagonist.' Parker's progagonist, Poldarn, a man whose memory was lost two books ago, and who has managed only to reclaim the nasty bits of his past, may or may not have had anything to do with the battle in question, but he at least gets to view the remainders, on his way from the bell-foundry where he works to a charcoal burners' camp in the same forest, to negotiate a charcoal purchase contract.

Such simple pursuits, digging clay for molds, smithying clappers and hinges for bells, eating bad food and worse beer, form for Poldarn a life which he finds surprisingly tolerable, mostly because it doesn't involve killing people, or causing hideous accidents, and because it frees him of any obligation for digging further into the ghastly quagmire of his hidden past.

Said past, however, eventually comes digging after Poldarn, in the shape of several old 'school' friends, fellow-graduates of the Sword-Monks' school at Deymeson. Despite some remarkably ingenious and determined efforts to squirm away, Poldarn finds he has no choice but to get involved once again in the vicious politics of the Empire, the surging to-and-fro of viking raids, Imperial armies, vagrant warlords, sacked cities, sinister coincidences, blood, mud and sheer damned incompetent stupidity...

All of the above, of course, is only surface. Parker's work goes far beyond the tangle of daily events and relationships. There is biting satire here; 'Religion' is on the block, being steadily mangled as Parker's characters relate their experiences of it (which mostly involve killing people).

There is also dark philosophy; where does this story start? how did the blatant and ugly evil at its core commence? where is the ultimate beginning and end of destruction and greed? And who is Poldarn? Is he really, at last, just a desperately unlucky, psychopathically violent ne'er-do-well, tugged here and there by partial loyalties amidst the power-plays and cruel ambitions of ambitious, conscienceless men? Or is he, as seems all too likely, the human avatar of Poldarn-the-God, harbinger of the World's End?

Although much that was previously unclear is revealed, and the pivotal elements of Poldarn's past are related, there is still a lingering mystery. Parker has written a story, at once enthralling and appalling, that traces a steady, ever-tightening spiral of decay and destruction. It is not unfair to reveal that, as I predicted after reading volume one, Shadow, this story does not have a happy ending, but then that's not the point of Parker's writing.

What is the point, you ask? Well, with sophisticated prose and densely meticulous plots, Parker is attacking some of our most cherished Sacred Cows. This time, it's Religion, as well as our rather unhealthy assumptions, where fiction is concerned, about good intentions, happy endings, and fundamental equity. His stories are antidotes to naivete, prescriptions in healthy cynicism and he makes absolutely no concessions to his readers' finer feelings, or even to good taste.

Parker is witty, calculatingly cruel, extremely perceptive, and a first-rate writer. The Fantasy genre doesn't need more authors like this (because, how much pain can you bear to read?) but it does need one; always fresh, Parker is a wake-up call everyone should pay attention to.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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