So much of our identities are inextricably intertwined with our experiences—good and bad—and our convictions, choices, personalities, and passions are all informed by what has come before. Therefore if someone could rewrite your memories, they could rewrite you. If magic or technology could make you forget your own name or convince you that you were desperately in love with a stranger, how could you trust anything? Who would you be?
Each of these five wonderful books wrestles with the implications of manipulated memories in their own way, asking often heartbreaking questions: What is the cost of forgetting the sins of the past? How do our shared memories bind us together, and how can losing them tear us apart? Who decides if a life can be erased? But what these books all have in common is how they highlight—even in worlds full of magic and monsters—something so mundane, something so human: the value and the frailty of our memories.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay is the best prose stylist in all fantasy, but Tigana is more than just beautifully crafted words; it is a heart-wrenching story about grief, vengeance, and identity. A wrathful magician king curses a conquered land, using his powers to wipe the name Tigana from the minds of men. But perhaps most cruelly, he allows the few survivors of this ravaged land to remember what has been taken from them; only they can still speak and hear its name. And yet somehow, even in this world of tyranny, atrocity, and rebellion, Kay creates nothing but blurred lines, leaving the reader with divided loyalties and a profound sense of loss, no matter the outcome of the final pages.
Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
This dark graphic novel series tells the story of a crumbling old house and the crumbling family that lives inside. The Locke children discover what their parents once knew but have forgotten: that the house is populated with magical keys, each with unique and fantastical powers. When they first start experimenting with the Head Key, which grants the power to remove or insert memories, it seems like a godsend for kids who are eager to forget the terrible things they’ve seen. But they learn you can’t remove even your worst memories without changing who you are, and that the Head Key has already been used for horrors of its own.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
This classic hardly needs my recommendation, but if—like me—you missed reading it as a kid, do yourself a favor and grab a copy. YA dystopias are everywhere these days, but none can match the emotional gut punch of Jonas’s journey as he becomes a Receiver of Memory, the one member of his community forced to know the sins of their past. But it is what he learns about the present that is most haunting, as he alone can see what has become of a world that never learns and never regrets.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A Gothic melodrama set in Spain during the 1940s, The Shadow of the Wind is a book about books, murder, love, and legacy. Young Daniel Sempere visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books—a secret library of otherwise lost books—and there discovers a peculiar novel that captivates him. When he tries to locate more works by the same author, he instead uncovers a plot to eradicate the author’s books and history from memory, and finds himself being chased by a devilish figure straight out of the pages of his rare book. The plot is full of morbid twists and turns, and the shadowy streets of postwar Barcelona make for an incredible setting for this gloomy mystery.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
This glorious book makes much out of the contrasts between its two main characters: a golem, newly formed, with no past or desires of her own, and an ancient jinni, captured, bound, and stripped of his memories. These two creatures from Jewish and Arabian folklore find one another in a 19th century New York City bursting with noise, life, and immigrants. They each struggle in their relationships with the myriad humans they encounter—the golem desperate to serve and the jinni bitter and unmoored—but in each other, they find an unlikely kinship. From its brilliant premise to its beautiful writing and captivating characters, this novel is a wonder.
Originally published November 2018.
W.L. Goodwater lives with his wife and son on the coast. He designs software, teaches fencing, and writes novels—though not necessarily in that order. His Cold War fantasy series, Breach and Revolution, are published by Ace.