Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Wednesday, July 24, 2019: YA Maximum Shelf: The Memory Thief

Blink: The Memory Thief by Lauren Mancy

Blink: The Memory Thief by Lauren Mansy

Blink: The Memory Thief by Lauren Mansy

Blink: Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel

The Memory Thief

by Lauren Mansy

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

Blink, $18.99, hardcover, 368p., 9780310767657, October 1, 2019

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Lauren Mansy: The Definition of Strength

Robb Davidson Photography

Lauren Mansy is from the Chicago area, where she grew up helping her parents in their family business. She's spent years working with youth, from young children to high schoolers, and when she's not writing, she loves staying active outdoors, exploring the city to find the best deep-dish pizza and spending time with her family. Her debut novel, The Memory Thief (Blink, October 2019), was inspired by her own journey with her mother, who was a survivor when all hope seemed lost.

What inspired you to write this fantasy about a society in which memories are treated as currency?

When I was around Etta's age, my mom was diagnosed with a heart condition, which led to an unexpected open-heart surgery. Due to the trauma my mom experienced, the doctors warned my family that if she survived, she might not remember us when she woke. I was sitting at her bedside when she first began to stir, and she squeezed my hand three times, our signal that meant I love you. I knew that my mom was coming back to me, and it was a moment I'll never forget!

After facing the possibility of losing my mom, I was struck by how our memories make up so much of our identity and the vital role they play in our relationships with others. I wondered, "What if there was a world where memories could be transferred from mind to mind... and what kind of people would exist in a society like that?" I'm so thankful to say that my mom made a full recovery, but it was during those moments of uncertainty that the seeds for this book were planted.

Witnessing my mom's unwavering courage throughout her recovery process inspired me to write a story to honor her, and placing this book in her hands for the first time is one of my favorite memories!

In your story, many people buy, sell and trade memories--and talents--instead of experiencing life for themselves. Is this symbolic of anything you see happening in our world today? 

Throughout the story, Etta questions her own identity and how to find her true self in a world where it only takes one touch for someone else's memories to seep into your mind. For many in Etta's society, they often sell painful memories to avoid heartache or buy talents to avoid hardship, and they no longer value individuality and creativity. Instead of living both the joys and the trials of life together, they're isolated and disconnected from one another. Most are essentially choosing to live someone else's life instead of cherishing their own uniqueness and living in harmony with those around them.

Perhaps we face some of the same challenges in our society. I think there are quite a few things in our world today that allow us to "live" someone else's life--movies, television, the Internet, etc. Though these can be wonderful tools for expanding our minds, we also face the temptation of living an "imitation" of life instead of experiencing real life. We, much like those in Etta's world, have countless opportunities at our fingertips to gain new experiences.

It's interesting that the hero, Etta, and the villain, Madame, are both women. Was this a conscious decision? If so, why?

When I first began writing this story, Etta and Madame were characters who appeared very clearly in my mind. For Etta, Madame is like a mirror. She represents a lot of who Etta could end up becoming, depending on which choices she makes on this journey. Madame never intended to become a villain, and in her opinion, she's still very much a hero. Etta, on the other hand, has a lot of regrets. She doesn't believe she can ever do much good in this world. They're two women who are vastly different and yet they impact one another in ways neither of them could've predicted.

Forgiveness features prominently in the novel. Why was it important to you that Etta be a flawed--rather than a perfect--character? 

Etta is definitely guilt-ridden, has made costly mistakes and has lost hope that things can ever be made right. But she's also a character who believes a lot of lies about herself and the world around her. She doesn't think she deserves forgiveness, let alone to forgive herself.

While on her journey to save her mother, Etta is forced to confront the things and the people she's been running from, and she'll stop at nothing to protect her loved ones. I think there's a lot of courage in fighting for something you believe in, even when it scares you. It's during these moments of heartache that Etta begins to question if she's believed the wrong definition of strength. For years, her comatose mother hasn't spoken a word, but she's far surpassed any expectations placed upon her and has shown Etta the importance of never giving up.

Etta is slowly learning that true strength is so powerful that even the worst mistakes of the past can never extinguish it.

This story has so many fun twists and turns. Did you know exactly where you were going when you began? Can you take us through a bit of your process in writing it?

That's kind of you to say! I tried to keep an open mind while writing The Memory Thief. Though the story evolved throughout the revision process, many of the major plot points remained the same. I absolutely love revising, and I kept journals detailing the process and changes--it's been fun to look back and remember the various paths that this story has taken.

When I first began writing, there were fears, doubts and worries that I hadn't yet figured out how to voice out loud when faced with losing my mom. On the cover of The Memory Thief, there's a lock, which is symbolic of Etta's journal. She uses a journal to keep track of her own memories, so in a way, this book is like one big journal entry for her. It often feels like one for me, as well. Through telling Etta's story, I began to better understand my own. --Lynn Becker

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