Lauren Mansy's debut novel, The Memory Thief, is a compelling, darkly fantastic tale, in which memories serve as commodities to be stolen, bartered or auctioned to the highest bidder.
In Craewick, one of four allied realms, Gifted citizens have "the ability to read another's mind simply by touching them." The Gifted can take ownership of these thoughts and experience "whatever joys" are to be had in the recollections of others--frequently to the point that they are so "stuffed full of rare talents and thrilling memories" that they lose themselves. Meanwhile, the Ungifted, who bring wealth to the region by toiling as "seamstresses, carpenters, blacksmiths, and farmers," regularly have to resort to bartering their few "desirable memories" to pay the rent on their "tiny shacks."
When 17-year-old Julietta Lark finds an envelope on her door, she fears the worst. Her mother lies in a coma at the asylum. Even though Etta has made a deal with Madame, the realm's power-hungry ruler, to ensure her mother would "have a place at the asylum till she woke," Etta fears the letter means that the place is full again, and Madame's Minders have drawn "slips of paper to choose a patient to kick out." Before being removed from the asylum, her mother's brain--on Madam's orders--will be mined for memories, and Etta will be allowed to keep whichever of them she chooses. With her mother as weak as she is, "the energy of having her mind read will kill her.”
When Etta finally opens the envelope, she finds it's even worse: rather than the painless death of being read, the notice announces her mother's impending auction. Many years ago, Madame set up an auction block where the memories of people she deems criminals are sold to the highest Gifted bidder. Auction Day is popular, since Madame's tight grip on her realm ensures that, for most people, "the only hope of gaining new memories is up on that auction block." Auctions bring the promise of an "agonizing" death and strangers will likely buy "her [mother's] entire life and part of [Etta's], as well."
Ryder, the 12-year-old orphan whom Etta took in four years ago, urges Etta to go to the Shadows, a revolutionary group who use their Gifts "to undermine everything Madame stands for." Ryder is convinced they'll save Etta's mother because "they help people who can't help themselves." But Etta knows what Ryder does not: Bray, the leader of this resistance group, would love to get his hands on "the memory thief who backstabbed the Shadows to pay for that asylum bed in the first place"--Etta gave up the location of the former head of the Shadows, Greer, to save her mother.
Etta ultimately decides that she must try to strike a deal with Bray, "the one person who's powerful enough to slip in and out of the asylum, get [her] mother out of Craewick, and keep [them] hidden." When Etta arrives home, Bray is there; he slips a dark hood over her head and welcomes her "back to the Shadows."
She wakes in a prison cell in the Mines, a fortress where "the best thieves in the Realms live, trade, and vanish right out from under Madame's watchful eye." Etta insists that Madame was going to kill her mother if she didn't betray Greer; Bray's "deep, bitter rage rolls off him" as he informs her that when Madame came for Greer, she killed Bray's brother and another young Shadow. She sent Greer to the Maze, a prison "invented by" Porter, the "ironfisted," supremely Gifted "madman" who rules the neighboring realm of Aravid. There, prisoners are either killed or driven insane.
Bray knows Etta is the only one who can get Greer out: her unique Gift makes her unreadable to other Gifteds, meaning no one will be able to steal the plan from her mind. To get to Greer, she must acquire the key to the Maze: a map that exists only in Porter's thoughts. Bray assures Etta that if she doesn't agree to travel to Aravid and steal Porter's key, he'll drag her back to Craewick to "watch [her] mother die." To protect the interests of the Shadows, Bray forces Etta to travel with Reid, a powerful mind-reader and fighter who will ensure Etta's safety and keep an eye on her. As their chance of survival--not to mention success--rapidly decreases, Etta and Reid's mutual distrust turns into attraction.
Etta is a flawed character who has made mistakes, giving her depth and dimension and allowing the novel's strong message of forgiveness to ring true. Though Mansy builds an expansive fantasy world all her own, her tale uses dystopian motifs to great success, such as the corrosive effects of an overabundance of power falling into the wrong hands and her stern commentary on the divide between the haves and have-nots. Readers, like Etta and her fellow citizens, will be challenged to contemplate the nature of truth, considering the unique role that memories play in the Realms. Mansy also delivers a fine romance, made all the more gratifying by the difficulties sustained along the way. A welcome addition to the YA fantasy canon, The Memory Thief is a suspenseful page-turner, delightfully chock full of unexpected twists and turns. --Lynn Becker