LAST MEMORIA by Rachel Emma Shaw (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
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Memory is something we take for granted, though anybody who has tried to get to the bottom of an incident between pupils at school will know how malleable and unreliable memories can be.
However, our sense of ourselves – of who we are – is heavily built on our remembered experience. Those who have relatives with dementia will know how it can feel like losing the person you knew, though to the dementia sufferer themselves, the loss of memory is barely perceptible; it is not that they don’t know what they have forgotten, but that they don’t know that they have forgotten.
Lost memories and hidden truths are not just the fear of the bladdered university student waking from a heavy night out with no recollection of how they got where they found themselves the next morning. Stolen memories strike at something more primal, so read on to find out what the team thought of Rachel Emma Shaw’s story of theft and redemption.
Rachel Emma Shaw
Sarilla has learnt one thing from stealing memories. Everybody lies.
There’s nothing Sarilla hates more than stealing memories, but the king forces her to take them to keep his subjects in line. She wants to escape to where nobody knows what she is or what she can do, but her plans go awry when she runs into Falon.
Falon has a six month void in his memories that he’s desperate to restore. He doesn’t know why they were taken or what they contained, nor why the man he loves is acting so cagily about what happened during that time. He hopes to use Sarilla to get back his stolen memories and doesn’t care what she wants or why she’s desperate to escape. She will help him get them back, whether she wants to or not.
Theo: In her endnote Shaw says that “there is a different version of your book in the mind of every reader is possibly the most terrifying and most thrilling aspect of being an author. You never know how people are going to react, but that also makes it all the more wonderful when you find out that people loved your book.”
It’s an astute observation which you can see reflected in many of these Hive reviews as we have often felt quite differently about the books and the final judgements have sometimes been more a simple mathematical average than an agreed consensus.
All of which is by way of me saying I will never not love this book.
Shaw’s characters, plot and worldbuilding are preaching, and I am the choir. This is my kind of book so whatever my fellow judges may say, brace yourselves for some incessant fanboy squealing from me.
Julia: I do so love the cover! And I clicked with the story right from the start. The idea of stolen memories had me intrigued within a few pages, and I enjoyed exploring all that was to come early on!
Beth: I love the cover so much, it really caught my eye – it doesn’t fall prey to the usual fantasy tropes. Looking at it after having finished the book, it puts me in mind of being in the forest and looking at the stars. It’s so beautiful.
As for the story itself, my initial impression was that the prose was something of a bombardment on the senses, but I think this was a reaction to having not read something so prosaic for quite some time, it’s much more so than the other finalists I’d read so far. Once back into the flow of this kind of writing, I was able to appreciate it and enjoy it for how beautiful it is. There were a number of moments I bookmarked which I’ll share in the Quotes section below.
Nils: Yep, I agree with Julia and Beth, the cover is absolutely stunning. It’s a simplistic style, but very effective. The dark background and the vine leaves I feel mirror a lot of what you’ll find inside the book, and the gold lettering looks so elegant.
Like Beth I also found the opening chapter or so quite frantic, Shaw drops the reader right into the middle of events with very little time for us to get to grips with what is going on, it is left to us to continue reading and put the pieces together. I know this disorientated narrative is deliberately done as the whole book focuses on memories and how fragile and unreliable they are, therefore we are meant to feel that chaotic sense, yet I felt everything was moving so quickly that it was slightly jarring to read.
Having said that after a few chapters I settled right into the story, and found myself becoming not only engaged in the narrative but also attached to a few of the characters – Sarilla and Falon. I thought Shaw’s prose was lovely, atmospheric and almost lyrical which is the kind of prose I very much enjoy.
“Some nights she dreamt of burrowing her nails into her skin and drawing the memories out. She would pull until she was free then cast them into the fire to be sure their corruption couldn’t spread.”
There were also some nice character descriptions, for example the Memorias (people with the power to take memories from others) had white tipped hair – although we aren’t given an explanation for the reasoning behind that, I did think it was a great distinction to make.
I do have one suggestion to make though, please can we have a map? The whole opening follows Sarilla as she is fleeing from soldiers and whenever characters are fleeing and need to be at a specific destination I like to see on a map how far away they are!
Beth: Like Nils, I was soon hooked on the story. There’s a lot of mystery about where they’re running to, why they’re running. I did struggle a little to accept the jeopardy; I was really buying in to Sarilla’s fear and her need for herself and her brother to keep a low profile, but then in contradiction of this everyone is very scared of them and treat them like they’re highly dangerous. Sarilla’s brother overcomes their enemies quite easily. There are one or two contradictions like this within the story that raised questions. However, they did not mar my enjoyment of the story at all.
Filip: I, too, have great admiration for Rachel Emma Shaw’s prose. It is crafted with great care, which is felt throughout the novel’s three hundred pages. Last Memoria has no small element of the tragic to it, which offered me a sense of catharsis by the novel’s closing chapter. The cover is alluring, though the blurb doesn’t do a good enough job of forecasting some of the excellent storytelling within the covers of this novel.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Theo: Shaw does well to keep her narrative focus tight on just two main protagonists, Sarilla and Falon, and their principle companions Ced and Harvic. It is in the nature of the world and the plot that they are the most unreliable of narrators even (or perhaps particularly) in their innermost thoughts. Sarilla is an immediately sympathetic character, a young girl who has been forced to exploit her gift or curse and is on the run from the king who has enslaved her.
We see Falon in many different lights and Shaw manages to constantly tease and surprise the reader about the missing history between the two of them.
Although we never saw inside Harvic’s thoughts, or even heard him speak of his feelings, I liked the way Shaw showed his growing sympathy for Sarilla in his actions and the oblivious observations of others.
Beth: Yes! This was a masterclass in ‘show not tell’!
Theo: Although Ced is a largely unsympathetic character, Shaw still manages to make me care and want some redemption for him – which is a mark of a good author.
Julia: I mostly enjoyed the characters, good and bad alike! A few times I would have wished for a tiny bit more depth or development, but not as much to really hamper my overall enjoyment of the story. I loved the mystery of the missing backstory between Falon and Sarilla, and liked the twists and turns on the way to – supposed – truth! Falon himself is my least favourite character, but that is mostly due to personal taste. He wasn’t a badly written character, just not the sort of person I would love to be around all day if I was in Sarilla’s shoes!
Beth: Ha! I did wonder what Sarilla saw in him…
Julia: Ced and Havric might have been just side characters, but I did like to see them grow and stretch and find out more of their past.
Nils: I fell pretty hard for Sarilla and Falon. Like Theo has mentioned, Sarilla is a fantastic sympathetic character, and her portrayal of abuse (emotional not physical) and exploitation by the hands of Renford, the King, was extremely well done.
Sarilla is a young woman who for the entirety of her life has been told she’s a monster, a person not to be loved but to be feared, not even a person really but more a being to be kept under tight control. Her inner thoughts poignantly reflected how much she disliked herself, how she felt she deserved the poor treatment being inflicted on her and how desperate she was for Falon to love her – you couldn’t help but care for her.
“He was her moral compass. Her persecutor and defender all rolled into one. He condemned her in one breath and ordered her to be what he hated in the next.”
I did feel towards the ending of the novel that Sarilla’s character went in a direction which in all honesty I didn’t like, and couldn’t quite understand. Yet for the majority of the novel she was certainly my favourite.
Unlike Julia, I did also really enjoy Falon’s POV, I sympathised with his struggles and frustration at the gaps in his memories, his desperation to gain them back. The history he shared with both Sarilla and Ced was a mystery which kept me on tenterhooks throughout. When the big reveal did come about, I’m not really sure the build up was worth it… I kind of expected more of a revelation, but nevertheless Falon’s character still remained engaging.
I felt Shaw also portrayed the ’villains’ effectively, as I did have a deep dislike for them. Ced and Renford can both burn! I remember WhatsApping Beth several times, using all caps too, shouting that Renford needed to be dealt with accordingly! The bastard! So as you can see, overall Shaw’s characters definitely impacted me.
Beth: Ha, this was another finalist that had Nils and I with the Kindle in one hand and our phones in the other.
Nils: The sign of a good book!
Beth: I loved the relationship between Sarilla and Falon, there were a number of points in part one that were just so beautiful and really made me feel for Sarilla.
As Theo has already pointed out, I loved Havric and how well he was portrayed. To be fair, Shaw’s character portrayals as a whole are fantastic – delicately crafted. This is the kind of story, with unreliable narrators and shift in perspectives and what characters do and don’t remember or perceive, that requires a deft touch to be successful. And Shaw most certainly has that touch. You could easily see what was happening when Falon’s memories were being manipulated, without being told or directed.
Nils touched on Shaw’s portrayal of Sarilla’s emotional abuse at the hands of her uncle, and this was something that really impressed me. Sarilla makes plenty of decisions that were frustrating, I often found myself shouting “but you’re more powerful than him! Drain him of his memories!” – but Sarilla’s psyche is a complicated one in which she is very much a prisoner to the narrative her uncle has fed her. She is trapped between her fear of him, her fear of being the monster he says she is, and her belief that he loves her, her desire not to disgust him. She is an extremely complex and nuanced character with a great many layers.
Filip: Emotional abuse, dependency, a good helping of self-loathing–you can’t help but feel for Sarilla and cheer her on, hoping she catches a break. Nils has gone in-depth already on all the elements of Sarilla that most interested me, and so well that I find very little has been left unsaid. The only point I’d bring up is that unlike Nils, I thought the finale of Sarilla’s arc across Last Memoria was a natural progression of her overall journey. I won’t get into it, but I think it subverts expectations in a way that remains true to the character.
As for Falon, I thought he was alright, if overshadowed a little by his duo of supporting characters, Havric and Ced. I adore the authorial choice in switching PoVs halfway through and telling the latter part of the story through Falon’s eyes–takes guts to go for that kind of shift, but it paid dividends by Last Memoria’s end. I wonder if we’ll have these two as PoVs in the second part of this duology, or if Havric might not do some of the heavy lifting, too.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Theo: Structure and plot are a strength in that Shaw manages to surprise the reader with both as the story progresses. There was a slight weakness perhaps in the convenience of Sarilla being rescued by a blind woman, but my appreciation of the book ramped up with each twist. We might assume a kind of conventional tale of protagonist fleeing for escape and family reunion, but then the narrative switches direction, perspective and goal in a series of sharp turns. Each one refreshed the storyline and heightened my anxiety for the protagonists in a way that was perfectly pitched. Shaw adroitly avoids the perils of story sprawl or plot repetition.
Beth: Good point Theo, the pace was tight and I didn’t ever feel like it dragged at any point.
Julia: This was both a strength and a weakness of the book. There is some back and forth and back again that just felt so very, very ineffective of the characters, as it could have been so easily avoided when they had just spoken two sentences with each other. And being on the road together all day for days on end, I would expect they would have done so. That part just didn’t feel very smooth or realistic to me. The plot often goes the exact opposite way of what I expected, and while I love being surprised by books, some of these twists just felt a bit rushed. With a few scenes I’d have loved a bit more padding around the edges. On the other hand I have read so many fantasy books, that any book that surprises me not once, not twice, but again and again is a definite plus, so I’d say these balance each other out for me.
Nils: I’m quite conflicted about the plot. For the majority of the book I did enjoy following Sarilla and Falon as Sarilla tries to escape from King Renford, and Falon tries to bring her to him. The conflict and connection between the two characters kept me immersed and fascinated. Yet in the second half I felt the plot began to unravel and lose some credibility. I began to find the repetition of characters taking certain memories and then giving them back really tedious. There were certain aspects which failed to make sense, there were holes created in earlier plot lines and by the very end I was left confused and honestly disappointed. Which is such a shame because up until then I was absolutely loving the book.
Beth: Unlike Theo, I think Shaw’s greatest strength was more in her characters than the plot. I agree with Nils and Julia that, especially towards the end, there were one or two issues. I think what it boiled down to was things being introduced quite late into the story which in turn made them feel like plot conveniences instead of genuine aspects of the story. Most notable for me was the fact that memories and the black vine were affected by sunlight.
Nils: Ah yes, this just came out of nowhere, didn’t it?
Beth: It came as a surprise to me, but the characters treated it like common knowledge, so it wasn’t supposed to be a twist? For the majority of the book, Sarilla wears gloves to hide the black markings on her hands, then towards the end of the book, we find out the sunlight burns them. This is something that becomes quite important, so mentioning it at the start of the novel would implant it in readers’ minds and hold more validity when it came into play.
Like Nils, I also found the passing around of memories at the culmination of the story quite confusing. From having the understanding for most of the story that the blackvine strips people of memories, to it later instead putting memories into people and overwhelming them… It could have been a little cleaner, but again didn’t really affect my enjoyment.
I still thought this was a great story and a really unusual magic system.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Theo: This is where Shaw’s creativity really takes off for me. The intertwined themes of identity and memory transcend genre. The Goodreads blurb mentions the wonderful film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” one might also mention Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall”
Beth: Adapted from Philip K Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”!
Theo: Thanks, Beth, and no I didn’t know that. (I sense a future “Was the book better than the film” post coming out of those). There are also a slew of dementia related tales like Elizabeth is Missing. All of which interrogate the degree to which we are who we remember ourselves to be and loss of memory is a loss of self. My favourite Mark Lawrence quote is this one from Prince of Thorns hinting at the pain memories can bring.
“Memories are dangerous things. You turn them over and over, until you know every touch and corner, but still you’ll find an edge to cut you.”
The theme of wiping away guilt with the erasure of memories, of the confusion and opportunities of hosting other people’s memories in your own head are topics I’ve built into a few short stories, and Shaw takes that core concept and weaves an impressive story around it. Jeff Salyards Bloodsounder’s Arc series is also full of memory magic and the way it can mess with your head.
The notion of a memoria who can not just interrogate but siphon off memories with the touch of her fingers, and whose hands and arms become blackened with the writhing threads of stolen memories is a simple but powerful magic. But Shaw goes further with her insight into the culture of a whole race of memoria – a race where memories do not die with the person but are handed on to be curated in a walking repository of every significant event in the lives of a people. A race that has no need of writing or books or the light to read them by, yet may still suffer a loss as devastating as the burning of the library of Alexandria. It reminds me of the oral history traditions that allowed Alex Haley to trace his ancestry all the way back to Kunta Kinte in Roots.
In Shaw’s focus on her characters and the immersive approach to her story, there may be a sense that other aspects of worldbuilding are a little sketchy, neglected even. There is a kingdom, a king, an army, a war and a dangerous forest – we understand these are bad things but get little detail – dammit there isn’t even a map in the book!
Nils: Exactly!! I needed a map too!
Theo: What kind of fantasy book doesn’t have a map?! Well to be honest one that is wholly focussed on and (literally) in the minds of its characters. It is clear that Shaw has a thorough understanding of her world and its backstory but allows just those necessary details to bleed into the narrative like the fragmentary snatches of a memory.
Filip: To quote game designer and writer Matthew Colville, “The map is not the territory” (the original quote is attributed to mathematician Alfred Korzybski, but I’d have a lot more trouble working that guy into the conversation…).
Julia: Theo said so much, I’ll keep it short – I did love the idea of the memory magic, and also the creative ways the memoria culture has left traces on the world was well done, and I loved exploring this new world!
Nils: I absolutely loved this world, I loved the notion of the Memorias, I loved the fantastically creepy Blackvine which pursued people and left them completely void of any memories and therefore essentially killed them, I loved the exploration of memories themselves – how much are our memories altered by nostalgia? How much of them are the actual truth?
I really did appreciate the way Shaw created a thought-provoking world where we begin to question and contemplate on our own memories and what they mean to us.
I did feel we could have used some more depth and clarity with the magic system though – the powers which the Memoria’s wielded needed some further explanation, *spoiler* such as how exactly did the Memoria create the Blackvine? Why couldn’t Sarilla use her own powers against the King? I needed some more justification I guess.
Beth: What Theo says about the fragmentary snatches of worldbuilding is something that really struck me whilst reading. Like Theo says, there are hints that show Shaw has a firm grasp of her world, but I rather loved how sparse the details she shared with us were. It really gave the story a sense of anxiety for me. This is a story in which the characters don’t have time to tell me much about their world. They were always on the run, they were always being persecuted, there was no let up for them – that was the focus and the drive, and even the worldbuilding reflected it.
What we do get, their immediate surroundings, was very atmospheric. I absolutely loved the forest, its darkness, the threat of history waiting at their feet to swallow them up any moment. I loved Shaw’s inclusion of the ‘nexus’ of plant life that Sarilla was able to tap into, I thought that was very clever indeed!
Filip: There’s something of the fairy tale about Last Memoria, a certain wistfulness, a tragic twist to familiar roles; after all, is Sarilla not close to a run-away princess, and is Falon not a nobleman’s bastard son?
Beth: Yes Filip! I didn’t even consider how fairy-tale like it is!
Filip: The sketchy character of many of the surrounding elements to which Theo points us–these again struck me as the outline one might expect to catch a glance of in a fairy tale. The magic is another aspect that awoke in me an almost childlike wonder; especially the blackvine, did it not recall for anyone else the haunting visuals of Disney’s animated classic, The Sleeping Beauty, and the thorns Maleficent summons in particular? Perhaps the association is only my own–but it enhanced my experience with Last Memoria.
Beth: Now you mention it, yes it really does!
Quotations that resonated with you
Theo: There were lots around the theme of memory
“That was the trouble with stolen memories. You could never trust them once they were yours.”
“They’re poison,” she said, staring at the black as she moved the memories about, make the branches retreat and reform anew across her hands. “The more we take, the more they grow, the more they spread and the less you know yourself.”
Here when the soldiers are at camp near the deadwood – haunted by the monstrous soul destroying blackvine
“The thought of the blackvine creeping up on us from between the trees was still enough to make frightened babes out of grown men. They seemed to be competing for who could stand furthest from the treeline and still piss into the forest successfully.”
Nils: I highlighted so many lovely quotes, but I’ll restrain and just share two of my favourites. They both show how stunning, thought-provoking and poetic Shaw’s prose was:
“Monsters weren’t pets. The Gods couldn’t let them live. They needed to be destroyed and their deaths were a promise. A promise the Gods wouldn’t suffer her to live much longer either. They would set her free soon.”
“If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that forgetting is freedom, but also that remembering weighs heavier than chains.”
Beth: I found it so easy to get lost in Shaw’s prose:
Some night she dreamt of burrowing her nails into her skin and drawing the memories out. She would pull until she was free then cast into the fire to be sure their corruption couldn’t spread. Already they had wormed so deeply inside her that there were days she couldn’t remember who she was on waking.
This part left me actually feeling fluttering and I had to Whatsapp Nils immediately:
Her heartbeat raced as he dragged his thumb across until it grazed her lips.
“Why do you feel so familiar?” he asked, making her breath catch in her throat.
Theo: There are other books that have played with amnesia in one form it another – Fortune’s Fool did it last year, and Last Memoria is not the only SPFBO 6 book to toy with misplaced memories, but it is the one that does so entirely from the off in an extremely well constructed tale that constantly challenges and surprises with notions of guilt and innocence, of monsters and victims right up to its last page. Sarilla’s abilities make her like Alzheimer’s disease personified – someone who can destroy the person you thought you were, the person you thought you knew, one sad stolen memory at a time. It is no wonder that Sarilla sees herself as others do – as a monstrous abomination – but she is also a triumph in a story where Shaw drags the characters along a tightrope. In its exploration of the potential for redemption, of second chances offered through the wiping of guilty memories, and yet of the tragic loss of shared intimacy as the flipside of such opportunities, Last Memoria reminds me a bit of the TV show “The Good Place.”
Surprising me all the way to the end, this is one SPFBO finalist where I will be sure to pick up the second book.
Julia: Despite a few flaws, I enjoyed this one from start to finish. There’s tremendous talent at display, and like Theo I will not just pick up the sequel, I will definitely keep a close eye on the author from here on out!
Nils: Although I had some issues which mostly centred around the ending of the novel, I would say overall that Last Memoria is a beautifully written and poignantly thought-provoking tale. The highlights for me were definitely in the worldbuilding and in Sarilla and Falon’s characterisation, their journey certainly carried me along. In my opinion I feel this could use another layer of editing, and I would love to see a map included too.
Beth: I have to agree with Nils, a clean-up would be beneficial for this one, but ultimately I thought this a very strong story. Unique, well-paced, moving… between the beautiful writing and wonderfully portrayed characters, it ticked a lot of my boxes. I particularly love when Fantasy works to explore and challenge issues we are familiar with or can relate to in real life. In its most basic form, this is the story of a magic user escaping an evil king. But all those themes Theo dove into above, the emotional guilt and manipulation, the fragility of human memory and perception; these all work to lift the story into something else entirely. Something more.
Filip: Rachel Emma Shaw’s writing is to watch out for. Last Memoria showcases a promising new voice in fantasy, one with a whole lot to say – like the rest of the team, I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 2nd in the Hive’s Finalist List.