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Today’s guest is Mieneke from A Fantastical Librarian! This site is an excellent resource for speculative fiction fans, and clearly many others find it valuable as well: A Fantastical Librarian was nominated for a 2014 World Fantasy Award in the Non-professional Special Award category. It’s easy to see why given the great number of fantasy and science fiction book reviews and interviews with authors, bloggers, and editors. I especially enjoy the Blogger Query interview series in which Mieneke has conducted some fantastic interviews with book bloggers.

A Fantastical Librarian

“I am…?” : Representation of Mature Women in Fantasy

In the past few years I’ve read a lot about the importance of representation in fiction. From gender, to race, to sexuality, to disability, and any and all elements included under the umbrella of diversity. And while I very much believed in the importance of representation and that everyone should be able to find themselves in literature, I’d never felt myself very underrepresented. This may partially be because of what I read and because as a white, straight, cis woman, I am represented. And I know it was partially due to ignorance; I simply didn’t know it was a thing.

So while theoretically the need for representation made sense to me, what made it fully real to me was something I noticed in my children. I have two girls, aged 3 and 5, and in the past year or so I’ve noticed that the eldest always picks someone to be when watching TV. For example, they’ll be watching Frozen and she’ll say: “I’m Elsa.” Or when watching Princess Sofia: “I’m Sofia.” And then she will tell her sister she is Anna or Amber, depending on what they are watching. At first I thought this was just a natural kid thing, identifying with the hero of the film or show. But when I started paying attention, I began noticing something else. She always picks a female character for her and her sister to ‘be’ and if there is only one female character, well then they both have to be the same one. For example, watching Jake and the Never Land Pirates, she’ll always ‘be’ Izzy. Funnily enough, her little sister will happily pick Jake, because she doesn’t want to be the same character as her sister and Jake is the hero. Yet, they’ll fight over who will get to be Dora, when watching that show. And it’s not just my eldest, when her best friend comes over, she’ll do exactly the same. When I realised what was happening it was as if a light bulb went on in my head: this is the need for representation in action. If my girls have to double up on who they can ‘be’ in TV shows specifically aimed at little girls, how much harder will it be when they grow up and in other situations?

Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey Arrow's Flight by Mercedes Lackey

This made me think about my own feelings of identification with fictional characters over the years. While there have been several, the one that I connected the strongest to over the years and who has grown with me, was Mercedes Lackey’s Talia, the main character in the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy and an important character in the books that follow on from that series chronologically. When I first met Talia, I was a bullied, fat 14 year old, who loved horses and was living in an unsettled home. Talia was pretty much me, although she was pretty and slim, and her situation was a whole lot worse than mine. Most importantly though, Talia was saved from her situation by a magical horse and in her new home she was praised for exactly those characteristics I shared: being a good and conscientious student, skilled at handling small children, and being caring of others. While I realised that there wasn’t going to be a Companion clomping up to my front door to whisk me away, Talia’s story did make me realise that things would improve and that I shouldn’t let the bullies win.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself still identifying with Talia, but on a whole new level. In Arrows Flight Talia goes out on her internship in the field and discovers that her grip on her Gift is tenuous at best and slipping from her control. This sends her spiralling into self-doubt and finally a deep depression. In my twenties, I went through a long period of deep depression as well and when I finally got help it was hard and painful work to work through my issues. And once more, here was Talia lighting the way, showing me that doing the work was worth it, and that I should hang in there. And things got better.

Talia remained a character to identify with as we both grew older. Like Talia, I became a mum, and while her love for her children was very recognisable, Talia also disappeared to the background of the Valdemar books, a figure of authority and beloved certainly, but not so much in the spotlight anymore. This leaves me without my go-to figure of representation in literature for the first time in 20 years. Because off the top of my head I can’t come up with a mother with an active role in a fantasy novel. And by an active role I mean, not one limited to being someone’s mum, but being someone’s mum and being the hero of their own story as well.

King's Dragon by Kate Elliott Miserere by Teresa Frohock

Because mature and older women? They are not so well represented in fantasy. There are some; Kate Elliott makes a point of including them in her books and stories, Rosvita and Mother Anne are just two of those included in the Crown of Stars series, and more recently I loved Anna, the protagonist of Elliott’s short story “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine.” I know Teresa Frohock has wonderful mature characters in her book Miserere, which I confess is still languishing on my To Be Read pile. Robin Hobb has the brilliant Kettle in her Farseer books and Trudy Canavan’s Sonea returns as an adult in her later books, but those are the only ones I can think off when I glance at my shelves, without actually picking up any of the books.

So where are the older women in fantasy? Mature women who are the hero of their own story? In a bid to find them, I turn to you, dear reader. What are your reading recommendations for stories with mature women as the hero?