This novel rewrites and massively expands author Tidbeck’s prior (2009) short story “Augusta Prima” concerning inhabitants of the Gardens, a rather small and artificial fairyland whose chief inhabitants have fallen into a sybaritic cruelty in their never-ending festivities. Augusta herself, a Lady of the Gardens, is the villain of the story, and she expresses a strangely innocent and nevertheless repulsive sort of evil. The heroes of The Memory Theater are Thistle, a “servant” (i.e. slave) who had been abducted from Earth to the Gardens as a child, and his adoptive sister Dora, an enigmatic magical offspring of one Lord of the Gardens. A non-human sorceress named Ghorbi assumes a tutelary role for these two.
Despite my original inferences from the title, The Memory Theater really has nothing to do with Renaissance memory arts or the mental theater of Giulio Camillo (ca. 1480–1544). Instead, the title refers to a small collective enterprise with larger metaphysical consequences: a set of performers enacting memories in order to dignify vanished cultures and values. It is the polar opposite of the Gardens. In the Gardens, time is suppressed, suffering is taken for comic entertainment, and Lords and Ladies are expert at forgetting.
Tidbeck’s prose in this book is lean and efficient. It reads quickly, and some of the descriptors in the original story (e.g. the servants of the Gardens as “changelings,” Ghorbi as a “djinneya”) have been dropped. One effect of this change is to open up a little sfnal ambivalence: the “traffic controllers” of the inter-world crossroads have an air of extraterrestrial exoticism for instance. The relevant Earth history is set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, largely in Sweden.
From jacket copy and other short descriptions, I expected this book to have a feel like works I had read from Susanna Clarke, but it didn’t. The constellation of central characters and the worlds-transiting magic involved reminded me more than a little of Paul Park’s Roumania books. Still, the flavor was really its own, and I enjoyed it as a distinctive instance of the micro-genre of “fairy weird.”