In the city of Craewick, memories reign. The power-obsessed ruler of the city, Madame, has cultivated a society in which memories are currency, citizens are divided by ability, and Gifted individuals can take memories from others through touch as they please. Seventeen-year-old Etta Lark is desperate to live outside of the corrupt culture, but grapples with the guilt of an accident that has left her mother bedridden in the city's asylum. When Madame threatens to put her mother up for auction, a Craewick practice in which a "criminal's" memories are sold to the highest bidder before being killed, Etta will do whatever it takes to save her. Even if it means rejoining the Shadows, the rebel group she swore off in the wake of the accident years earlier. To prove her allegiance to the Shadows and rescue her mother, Etta must steal a memorized map of the Maze, a formidable prison created by the bloodthirsty ruler of a neighboring Realm. So she sets out on a journey in which she faces startling attacks, unexpected romance, and, above all, her own past in order to set things right in her world.
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Ungifted people also live throughout the realms in menial tasks and are often exploited by the Gifted. The realms take Gifted people from poor families to add to their armies of Minders. The Shadows are a group leading a rebellion against the realms- particularly Craewick, which is ruled by the cruel Madame. Etta bartered with the Madame years ago to have her mother (now in a coma) taken care of in the Asylum, which is filled with people whose minds have been damaged due to memory transactions. Etta paid a big price to have her mother taken care of there and is hopeful that she will awake. She also has the Gift, but she is marked as Ungifted at her request in part of her bargain with the Madame.
Now, the Madame is threatening her mother, and Etta must turn to the group she had betrayed- the Shadows- to try to save her. As she embarks on a journey, this fast-paced book takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns to a highly satisfying ending.
What I loved: The premise is so unique, and the world building was really well done. While we don't get to explore all the realms, they were easy to imagine, and it was interesting to see the ethics/possibilities for such a society in which memories can be bartered. The implications and discussions about this raise a lot of interesting questions that can be considered even after reaching the end of the book (for instance, if our memories define us, what happens when others possess them? also about exploitation of poverty and the value of holding good and bad memories).
In terms of the characters, I loved the main characters (particularly Etta, Reid, and Ryder) and the presentation of people as not always good vs. bad. The romance was very well built, and we get a lot of character development as they connect and grow as individuals and a couple. I was fully on-board with them as a couple (no insta-love there).
What left me wanting more: I only wish the book was longer, as I would love to continue to explore this world and characters more! However, while it does move fast, it is not rushed.
Final verdict: A thought-provoking and unique YA fantasy, THE MEMORY THIEF is a engrossing and lovely story. Twists and turns keep the reader guessing as they follow Etta on her physical and mental journey. Highly recommend for people who like fantasy/dystopian books like MATCHED, THE SELECTION, BEWARE THE NIGHT, or UNDER THE NEVER SKY.