She felt like she was talking to a scared animal, and her heart went out to him, much as it had gone out to Nugget when she’d found him as a puppy. Something about his face looked familiar – a thought that had never occurred to her before. She’d seen him bouncing through town, but she’d never really stopped and looked at the strange man before. She knew that he was prone to speaking gibberish to lampposts and attacking street signs, but she had never spoken to him. No one did. The Glipwood Township ignored him like a stray dog.
– Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness
We’ve all seen them. They pop into stories, spring into books out of nowhere, leap out from behind the curtains onto the stage in mid-act.
The Long-Lost Relation. Long-lost fathers, long-lost mothers, long-lost children and brothers and sisters.
Even, on occasion, long-lost uncles. But it tends to be a rare occasion.
Contemporary stories use the device of the Long-Lost Relation shamelessly; fantasy and sci-fi stories use them just as shamelessly. I fancy, though, that the Absent Father and the Never Known Mother are more likely, in SF/F, to have a legitimate and even noble reason for their absence. Maybe they had their baby daughter hidden with fairies to protect her from an evil curse. Maybe they were under an evil curse themselves. Maybe they’ve been mouldering in somebody’s dungeon for the past decade.
And if the Absent Father – it’s usually the Absent Father – has a bad reason, it can be a very bad reason. Like, you know, he betrayed everyone he ever loved and everything he ever fought for to become a Dark Lord of the Sith, causing his Former Best Friend to spirit his children away and hide them beyond his evil clutches. (This ripples out, of course, to other Long-Lost Relation moments: the Epic Father Discovery, the Kinda-Convenient-But-We-Don’t-Care Sister Discovery, etc.)
That, you see, is why the Long-Lost Relation device is more fun in what they call speculative fiction: It’s far more likely there that the Long-Lost Relation is an epic villain. Or an epic hero. Or royalty.
To date, Andrew Peterson has in his Wingfeather Saga pulled the Long-Lost Relation ploy twice (surprising me, I confess, both times). We are holding our breath to see if he pulls it a final time in the last book, and having read the preview, we strongly suspect a Long-Lost Distant Cousin is involved somehow.
The Wingfeather Saga’s first revelation is so far the best – more surprising, more unique in what Long-Lost Relation was found, more unique in how he came to be lost so long. Not often is the Long-Lost Relation lost in plain sight, or found so reluctantly.
The Long-Lost Relation is popular because it aims at something universally understood, though rarely experienced – the shock and the emotional power of discovering a lost relative. The device lends itself to all kinds of fascinating and emotionally compelling situations, and no matter how many authors have used it, every author is entitled to make use of it himself.
Only one word of warning: Like other excellent things, the Long-Lost Relation must be used only sparingly. Every author may use it, but every author has a limit in how many times he should use it. George Lucas is out.