Daniel Polansky, The Seventh Perfection (2020)

Author: Daniel Polansky

Title: The Seventh Perfection

Format: E-book

Pages: 176

Series: –

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 โ€“ though, frankly, almost 200 pages used to be a full novel, not a novella ๐Ÿ˜‰. Suffice to say that when I saw The Seventh Perfection available on NetGalley, I jumped on it headfirst (or maybe teethfirst?).

And thatโ€™s the best way to approach this novella, in my opinion: donโ€™t read blurbs, avoid spoilery reviews (yes, itโ€™s self-defeating, but this one doesnโ€™t contain spoilers, so it doesnโ€™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 โ€“ because Polansky surely and gleefully doesnโ€™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. Itโ€™s written exclusively in the second person perspective, and each chapter presents a new point of view (there are very few recurring characters) โ€“ 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 โ€“ a young woman gifted with an eidetic memory and rigorously trained to become God-Kingโ€™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 cityโ€™s history, Manetโ€™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 wouldnโ€™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. Itโ€™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 โ€“ 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.

Polanskyโ€™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? Iโ€™m pretty sure the answerโ€™s yes; but Iโ€™m not at all certain it would make The Seventh Perfection any better. Polanskyโ€™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 โ€“ 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 wouldnโ€™t put any spoilers here, and I wonโ€™t, though Iโ€™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, Iโ€™ll just misquote the Latin poet Juvenal (whose words inspired Alan Moore’s unforgettable Watchmen) on purpose: Who Chooses the Chosen? ๐Ÿ˜€ What makes the heroes, yes โ€“ but more importantly: Who makes the heroes? I love Polanskyโ€™s answers here, whether they be called anti-romantic, cynical, or realistic, or just very postmodern.

Enough of the gushing. Iโ€™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 โ€“ what else would you need? ๐Ÿ˜€

I received a copy of this novella from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks!

Score: 10/10

45 thoughts on “Daniel Polansky, The Seventh Perfection (2020)

    1. I hope you’ll love it as much as I did! ๐Ÿคฉ Is the audiobook read by one person or many? I think that having separate actors for all those roles would be very interesting!

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    1. Thank you! ๐Ÿ˜Š

      Good luck! I’d be very curious to know what you think of this one! ๐Ÿ˜ I loved The Seventh Perfection unreservedly but I’ve seen many other reviews stating it’s confusing and leaving more questions than answers in its wake… For me, though, it’s one of the rare books that may deserve a re-read one day! ๐Ÿ˜„

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  2. Ohhhhh! So very intriguing! ๐Ÿ™‚
    I’ve read a couple of short stories from this author and always wanted to read some of his longer works, so this looks like the perfect opportunity to fulfill this promise to myself. Even though you managed to skillfully avoid any spoiler, you were able to pique my curiosity about this one. Well done! ๐Ÿ™‚
    And thanks for sharing…

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    1. Thanks for reading! ๐Ÿ˜€ And thank you!

      It’s a curious one; I loved it, but I feel compelled to point out that once again I’m in a minority and many reviewers are less enthusiastic than me. That said, I do hope you’ll love this one as much as I did! ๐Ÿ˜€

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  3. Color me intrigued! Your review manages to create an itch that could be scratched only by reading this book. I am not a fan of anything that can remind in any way Kafka, but all the rest seems so intriguing that I need to try this out!

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    1. The Kafkian influence is very slight and well hidden, and to be honest I haven’t seen any other review picking up on it, so you can just chalk it up to personal bias and not worry about it at all ๐Ÿ˜‰
      I’m very happy I convinced you to check it out! ๐Ÿ˜€ Fair warning, though, it may take some time to get used to this narrative where you need to figure out what question was asked by reading the answer ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s so fascinating, though! Loved it! ๐Ÿคฉ

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  4. Grrrr. You’re like a snake-oil salesperson, Ola, promising me the perfect panacea or the best salve for ennui. Down it goes on my list, just when I was thinking of collecting my copies of Piranesi and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London from the bookshop…

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    1. See me bow with a brightly smug smile on my face, Chris! ๐Ÿ˜ Though in all fairness, I’d never stoop to selling snake-oil, only books and paintings and maybe photographs, since we’re already well into the 21st century ๐Ÿ˜‰

      …and believe me, it should go UP on your list, not down! ๐Ÿ˜ aaand it’s shorter than both the books you mentioned…

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      1. I’ve given my brand new copy of Piranesi to the better half for her to read first (much as I did with JS&MN) so any review won’t be imminent I’m afraid, Bart, but it will not be too delayed! As for being a reviewer you trust, I’m gratified and flattered if that’s the case, but it’s a heavy burden to lay on anyone… ๐Ÿ˜

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          1. Rather fortuitously I found the three volumes in an ancient paperback edition in a local charity shop a couple of weeks ago, and they now reside close at hand on my desk waiting for my current crop of reads to be completed and reviewed! But they’ll have to wait till November at the earliest — and for my mood, which in these parlous times tends to swing wildly in directions beyond my control.

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  5. I recently discovered the existence of this one and I immediately added it to my TBR. This review only confirms my desire to pick it up ASAP! ๐Ÿ˜€ Formidable review, Ola. Brilliantly written and brilliantly convincing too! How rare are those 10/10 after all! ๐Ÿ˜€ Have you read everything else by this author? ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ASAP is right, Lashaan! ๐Ÿ˜

      Thank you! ๐Ÿ˜Š Yeah, 10/10 are very rare for me – I counted, and in the nearly 100 books I’ve already read this year I only had 4 10s! Well, there was one 9.5, so I should probably count this too ๐Ÿ˜‰

      No, I haven’t read the Low Town trilogy, not for the lack of trying, though – last I checked it was not available in my library, so I just bumped it down on my TBR for a better time ๐Ÿ˜‰ The Builders novella is very cool, too, though, and I think it would be right up your alley, Lashaan! ๐Ÿ˜

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  6. I’m looking forward to this. Absolutely loved The Builders and the chapter style and 2nd person POV intrigues me. Not sure I’d fancy a whole novel in 2nd person, but I have a soft spot for Polansky’s work. He’s also a really nice guy (got super-excited when he realised what my name was and started telling me its the proper way to spell it. Not gonna lie, I agree with him ๐Ÿ˜‰)

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    1. I enjoyed The Builders a lot, but this I loved to bits! It’s ambitious and gripping, and very rewarding. I’ll be quite curious to read your opinion on it!
      What is the proper name to spell your name? The only association I had with it to date was that with Lincoln’s assassin… ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚

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        1. Yeah, Aaron got the short straw in Old Testament; his story is rather tragic ๐Ÿ˜‰ But I can see the appeal of it for Polansky, after all Daniel is an Old Testament name too, and the lions make for a cool story ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    1. Thanks! ๐Ÿ˜Š
      Happy to hear you’re considering this despite the commitments – it’s definitely worth reading! ๐Ÿ˜€
      Mogsy will be listening to the audio version, I believe, so you might check her review out once she’s done ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Thank you, Cath! ๐Ÿ˜Š I’m very happy about this! ๐Ÿ˜

      I do hope you’ll enjoy reading them. Though be warned, the other Polansky’s books are much more bloody than The Seventh Perfection – I believe that for him this one is somewhat unusual in the restraint regarding the amounts of blood and gore ๐Ÿ˜‰

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      1. Thanks for the warning, Ola. So long as it’s not too graphically described I’m ok with blood and gore – in context. It’ll certainly make a contrast with some of my other reading at the moment.

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        1. With the exception of Orwell most of the stories that I read featuring animals as main protagonists was of the gentle kind ๐Ÿ˜‰ The Builders is gritty and tough, but very satisfying in an Eastwood Western way. The Seventh Perfection is more of a South American revolution meets Kafka in a fantasy world ๐Ÿ˜€ I’d love to read your thoughts on them, Cath!

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  7. piotrek

    Ok, I’m convinced, and since this is short, I really hope to read it soon ๐Ÿ™‚ I feel like it’s been ages since I’ve read something new & good.

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    1. Thank you! ๐Ÿ˜Š
      I’m extremely happy to read that I managed to share my love for The Seventh Perfection with you! I’ll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on it if you ever decide to read it!

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