Well-informed protagonists with excellent memories can be inconvenient. They can reveal all to readers at inopportune moments. If they already know what they need to know, they’re not going to search hither and yon for missing clues and information (and the author is going to have find some other way to bulk up the novel). That’s why so many authors choose a handy cure-all: amnesia. There’s nothing like amnesia to drive a plot and fill up a book.
Here are five rather memorable examples.
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (1970)
Carl Corey wakes in Greenwood, an unfamiliar hospital. He has no idea how he got there. Indeed, thanks to his amnesia, he has only the staff’s word that he is “Carl Corey” and not, to pick a name entirely at random, Corwin of Amber. Some applied violence later and the curiously untrusting Carl Corey learns the name of the benefactor paying for his stay at the hospital: his sister, Evelyn Flaumel.
Escaping the hospital, he confronts the woman in question, who turns out to be no more Evelyn Flaumel than he is Carl Corey. She is, however, his sister. In fact, Corwin has a number of siblings, a Machiavellian litter imbued with powers unknown on the Earth on which Corwin woke, many of whom are rivals for the otherworldly Crown of Amber and some of whom might, if they knew he had escaped Greenwood’s comfortable oubliette, simply kill him.
The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee (1975)
Centuries after a great people fell from power, an amnesiac wakes, haunted by a mysterious voice, aware that to remove their mask is to reveal a face that can freeze beholders in place. Venturing out into an unfamiliar world, they find the descendants of former slaves. Some believe the masked figure to be a god returned. Other accept that the amnesiac has genuine power, but see the awakened one only as an asset to use for their own ends. The amnesiac reinvents themselves over and over, adapting as conditions change. Those who seek to exploit this echo of a long-vanished age? They have less inspirational fates.
Shadow by K. J. Parker (2002)
A lone survivor wakes on corpse-littered battlefield. Around him lie the remains of two armies—but it’s not clear to which one of them he belonged, if indeed he was a combatant at all. His clothes give no hint; his memories are no help, because (as you might expect from inclusion on this list) the survivor has no idea who he is.
Once he wanders from the battlefield, he encounters people who do know who he is. They want him dead. All he learns from them is that to know him is to be driven to homicidal fury…and the fact that he’s a preternaturally skilled killer.
Belatedly conscious that he must have been an unpleasant fellow before he lost his memories, the survivor vows to do better. Perhaps he used to be a villain, but now he will be a hero.
And you know to what destination good intentions lead.
Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan (2016)
The swordswoman finds herself in the warrior’s version of the actor’s nightmare, with no idea who or what she might be, despite which she is magically compelled to perform an arduous quest for reasons unclear. The one certainty: she must collect blood from the cauldron of the Lhian. Who this Lhian might be and what views they might have about blood being collected from their cauldron—both are unknown. The revelation that most of the people who try to win a prize from the Lhian never return is cold comfort.
The True Queen by Zen Cho (2019)
Arriving in a tumultuous storm, Sakti and Muna know their names but nothing of their past. The pair are so similar that the Janda Baik islanders assume they must be sisters. Offered a home by formidable witch Mak Genggang, the pair start new lives. One small complication: the sisters are both cursed: where Sakti is full of magic, Muna has not a jot. Sakti’s curse is more existential: she is progressively vanishing. Perhaps the
English Sorceress Royal’s college for magically gifted women can help…
It’s convenient that, even though the English are her enemies, the Sorceress Royal is a friend of Mak Genggang. It’s less convenient that Sakti vanishes while the sisters are traversing Faerie to reach England.
It is up to powerless Muna to rescue Sakti. If only Muna were not utterly powerless. If only Faerie were not on the verge of declaring war on England.
No doubt there are examples I could have used but did not. I plead memory lapse. Do feel free to remind me in comments of the works I forgot.
Originally published September 2020
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.