I’ve just finished reading Kim Harrison’s new book, The Drafter. And damn, it was good. I stayed up later than I should have reading it, and that hasn’t happened for a while. Harrison had me practically from the first page, and it was her main character – Peri Reed – that did it.
Peri is an elite government agent; she’s tiny, gorgeous, and can kick serious ass and travel through time just enough to correct mistakes. So far, so pedestrian. How many gorgeous kick-ass heroines do we have in urban fantasy/sci-fi now? Probably enough that it’s standing-room only. Peri, however, is different. When she changes history (“drafts”), not only she not remember the history she has wiped, but she can’t remember the new version either – and the memory loss can extend backwards, sometimes for months. Peri, in fact, has lost large chunks of her life that way. She nearly always keeps a pen on her person so that she can write notes to herself. She has her habits and routines, to give herself something to cling to when she doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing there. Her partner (“anchor”), Jack, is supposed to bring the memories back, at least partially, by telling her what happened – but for that, of course, he has to be present. So Peri is never alone, just in case she drafts and loses part of her memory that can’t be brought back.
Harrison says that she wrote The Drafter as her own commentary on Alzheimer’s Disease, in which sufferers gradually lose memories until they lose themselves entirely. On that level, it works brilliantly. Harrison shows Peri’s strategies for coping with the memory loss that goes with her profession; the routines, the precautions, and the little tactics to try to avoid letting anyone know that she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. We’ve probably all been in that conversation with someone who clearly recognises us, but we have no idea who they are: “I know I’ve met you before but I don’t know where or when.” For Peri, it’s not just the social embarrassment of being really bad with faces; she can lose months or years, and not recognise her own partner. So, from a reading point of view, The Drafter was a great story of a woman trying to solve a major problem while losing major – relevant – parts of her own life, and while being lied to, deceived, betrayed, and manipulated by practically everyone around her, with even the people nominally on her side taking ruthless advantage of her weakness.
From a writing point of view, The Drafter was just as interesting. Peri could have been yet another cookie-cutter action heroine, but by tying Peri’s weakness to her power, Harrison made her a whole lot more attention-grabbing. Giving the protagonist’s special advantage a matching price gives the protagonist a reason not to use their special power. If you can just wave your hand and fix the problem, why not do it? But if there’s a price involved, then the decision is that much harder; the protagonist – and the reader – have to be sure that the prize is worth the price they will have to pay. It ups the ante; in order to win, the protagonist will have to give something up that matters to them. How far will they go? At what point is the price of victory too high? Do you get to the point where the person with special powers is in the same position as mere ordinary mortals, because their special power has such a high price tag that they might as well not have it at all?
In the case of The Drafter, Peri’s special power almost comes full circle – she has abilities that most other people don’t, but the consequences make her into a pawn in other people’s schemes, easy to manipulate because her inability to remember her own past makes her reliant on others to remember for her, and to try to put her memory back together. Is her power a strength, or is it a weakness? Is she a player, or a pawn?
The ambiguity of Peri’s position has an effect on the way the rest of the story plays out. The usual structure of hero-and-sidekick(s) vs villain-and-sidekick(s) doesn’t work. Not only does Peri’s memory loss make it very difficult for her (and thus the reader) to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are, since they are all manipulating her for their own reasons, but her weakness means that the secondary characters have relatively greater power in the story.
It all adds up to a much more complex story than your average sci-fi thriller, and one that leaves you with something to think about long after you’ve finished the last page.