Author: Daniel Polansky
Title: The Seventh Perfection
Daniel Polansky is known mostly for his Low Town grimdark trilogy. I read, and admired, his 2015 novella The Builders; a gritty and incredibly bloody tale of a group of small animals hell-bent on revenge. Think The Wind in the Willows x Reservoir Dogs (yes, I know. And yes, it works!) In The Builders I found that Polansky has a perfect feel of the limitations and opportunities inherent in shorter literary forms – though, frankly, almost 200 pages used to be a full novel, not a novella 😉. Suffice to say that when I saw The Seventh Perfection available on NetGalley, I jumped on it headfirst (or maybe teethfirst?).
And that’s the best way to approach this novella, in my opinion: don’t read blurbs, avoid spoilery reviews (yes, it’s self-defeating, but this one doesn’t contain spoilers, so it doesn’t count! :D) and be prepared to be surprised. But also, be prepared to shoulder at least some of the burden of understanding what in the world is going on – because Polansky surely and gleefully doesn’t make it easy for his readers. The Seventh Perfection is a reading challenge. A very welcome, and an extremely rewarding one, I might add. It’s written exclusively in the second person perspective, and each chapter presents a new point of view (there are very few recurring characters) – which might be overwhelming, but is also immensely enjoyable: all characters have their own peculiarities and their own unique voices, and, most importantly, their own agendas.
The Seventh Perfection is a fantasy mystery. Set in a city still remembering the throes of popular revolution which dramatically altered its physical, ideological and spiritual landscape two decades prior, the novella follows Manet – a young woman gifted with an eidetic memory and rigorously trained to become God-King’s Amanuensis. Amanuensis is a sort of a glorified portable memory/bodyguard/entertainment center slave, and the titular seven perfections refer to seven disciplines of mind and body that an adept must master before they are deemed worthy of entering the presence of the God-King. Manet has finished her training, attaining all seven perfections; but before she assumes the position of Amanuensis, she needs to solve a mystery surrounding her past. That obsession drives her through the city like a honed knife, and The Seventh Perfection is the recording of her quest: we travel with Manet from one person to another, listening to their answers, searching for clues, teasing apart the conspiracy of silence surrounding the events of the revolution. Polansky lets the readers become Manet, in a manner peculiarly reminiscent of video games: the text of The Seventh Perfection consists only of responses of the people Manet meets along the way; and her unrecorded, unwritten questions become ours as we must ask them ourselves while slowly learning about the city’s history, Manet’s quest and its real stakes.
There are so many aspects of this novella that I loved, and ironically enough the fantasy elements are at the end of the list. Both the exalted God-King living in his magic tower, and the Amanuenses and their seven perfections are necessary here, but as a prop: without them, particularly without the eidetic memory of our protagonist, this novella wouldn’t make much sense. But these elements are absolutely secondary in the development of the story and its protagonist; the more important aspects are hidden deep within the pages, patiently waiting to be found. On the surface, The Seventh Perfection is a mystery set in a fantastical world. But when you dig deeper, it turns into a fascinating reflection on power, truth, and sacrifice. It’s a very political novella and more than once while reading I had flashes of historic events in mind: various popular revolutions, from Europe and South America. The Seventh Perfection asks many incredibly pertinent questions regarding not only our political and ideological systems, but also regarding the way societies shape their identities and institutions. Polansky slyly analyses the very real chasm between the worldviews of people representing the old world and the new; the shaping of history by the victors and the slow dissolution and diminishing of those ground beneath the inexorable wheel of events; and the role of individual heroes within popular social movements – are they catalysts, instigators, or simply convenient symbols? He even manages to cram in these 170-odd pages a short impression of the curious way in which for many people even the bloodiest, most radical political change in fact changes nothing.
Polansky’s writing is impeccable here; there are no empty runs, no red herrings. Each character has their unique voice and agency, and we meet an astounding variety of them, from the lowest to the highest echelons of the city. The action runs smoothly and linearly, out of necessity streamlined into a form of an interrogation, of a series of meetings, more or less accidental, that shape not only one life, but, in the end, the lives of all. Could it have been a bit less simple, a bit less like an artistic, highly ambitious video game? I’m pretty sure the answer’s yes; but I’m not at all certain it would make The Seventh Perfection any better. Polansky’s novella is a very quick, slick and immersive read; an open invitation for a truly wild ride. But beware: it puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of its readers, going off the deep end and not caring if they can swim – it offers no explanations and no shortcuts to easy answers, and yet in return for a bit of goodwill it delivers a very satisfying, highly rewarding reading experience.
I promised I wouldn’t put any spoilers here, and I won’t, though I’m jumping inside with the urgent need to discuss this wonderfully mind-bending ending, which twists the whole trope of the Chosen One inside out in a very Kafkian way. So, instead of spoilers, I’ll just misquote the Latin poet Juvenal (whose words inspired Alan Moore’s unforgettable Watchmen) on purpose: Who Chooses the Chosen? 😀 What makes the heroes, yes – but more importantly: Who makes the heroes? I love Polansky’s answers here, whether they be called anti-romantic, cynical, or realistic, or just very postmodern.
Enough of the gushing. I’ll finish this review by saying that The Seventh Perfection is for me one the best reads of 2020. Short, slick, brutal, challenging, mind-bending and thought-provoking – what else would you need? 😀
I received a copy of this novella from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks!