Karin Tidbeck’s strongest asset, perhaps, is the understated confidence of their authorial voice. The Memory Theater (2021) is a prime example of an author guiding their reader calmly into an imaginary world, with the unspoken but deeply felt assurance that they’re in good storytelling hands.
The novel begins in “the Gardens,” a timeless pocket universe of endless, hedonistic partying from its privileged lords and ladies. Unfortunately for its enslaved servants — including Thistle, abused at the hands of the sociopathic lady Augusta — the Gardens is a land of endless suffering. That changes, however, when Augusta comes into possession of a watch, and through her own self-interested curiosity manages to start time passing again. For this crime, she is banished from the Gardens, unexpectedly freeing Thistle from his servitude. The catch is that Thistle, stolen from his own life in another part of the multiverse, no longer knows his own name or history. Together with Dora, the abandoned daughter of one of the Gardens’ thoughtless masters, he sets out to track down the exiled Augusta to reclaim his identity, and find a new life for himself.
The Memory Theater is an assured allegory that leverages surreal, dream-like worldbuilding toward relevant, timely themes. It spans a multiverse of worlds, but speaks clearly to ours, painting a vivid, fantastical picture of systemic inequality, through which its struggling heroes and irredeemable villains pursue their aims. There’s realistic darkness to its mindset, but there’s also heart and hope in the characters’ struggle. A blazing fast, transporting read that is thought-provokingly entertaining.