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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Genoveva Dimova! Both books in The Witch’s Compendium of Monsters, her Bulgarian folklore–inspired fantasy duology described as “The Witcher meets Naomi Novik,” are coming out this year: her debut novel, Foul Days, on June 25 and the sequel, Monstrous Nights, on October 22. I’m delighted she’s here today to discuss her favorite character to write, some influences, and representation of older women in “Female mentors in fantasy.”

Cover Artist: Rovina Cai
Cover Designer: Jamie Stafford-Hill

Female mentors in fantasy

People occasionally ask me which one of my characters was my favourite to write, probably expecting it to be a difficult question, like asking a parent to choose a favourite child. Except, my answer is always immediate: Vila.

In my debut Slavic fantasy, Foul Days, Vila is a prickly older witch with a penchant for sequined woollen vests and terrible jokes, living in a chicken-legged house. She is an untouchable figure with many years of knowledge and skill behind her back, who serves as a mentor to our witchy protagonist, Kosara. In the sequel, Monstrous Nights, as Kosara grows in knowledge and skill herself, we get a more vulnerable side to Vila, as she has to come to terms with her own eventual mortality.

Some of my influences in writing this character are perhaps obvious. Firstly, Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch in her hut on chicken legs, is a figure that has always fascinated me. When she appears in fairy tales, she is all-knowing, otherworldly, and threatening. Yet, despite her frequent remarks about how much she appreciates the taste of human flesh, she’s often benevolent and willing to help our hero in their quest, sometimes for a price, sometimes just because she feels like it.

The second obvious influence is Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, who we see taking on a mentoring role multiple times in the series, first in Equal Rites and then in the Tiffany Aching books. Granny is a complex character—stern, practical, distrustful, and powerful. Someone you can’t help but love, despite her being far from a “likeable female character”.

This is, perhaps, what always attracts me to female mentor characters. They tend to be older, settled in their ways, knowledgeable, skilful, and confident. They’re rarely ‘likeable’ or ‘relatable’ in the way we’re told our female characters have to be, or else readers wouldn’t sympathise with them—yet, I find them so easy to sympathise with, probably because they remind me of the older women in my own life. Frankly, I find them inspirational.

So, imagine my surprise when I deliberately searched out more fantasy books with older female mentor figures in them, and I found a distinct lack. Sure, there are some excellent examples out there: there’s Od from Od Magic by Patricia McKillip and Meghan from the Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth. There’s the dust-wife in T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone and Baghra from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (and you can’t convince me she doesn’t share the Baba Yaga influences with my own Vila!). However, for every female mentor figure I encountered, there were three times more old, wise men. For every Granny Weatherwax, there was a Gandalf, a Dumbledore, and an Obi-Wan Kenobi.

As an archaeologist, I couldn’t help but dig deeper. I simply couldn’t figure out why this lack of female mentors occurred. In between reading ancient forums and more recent Reddit threads, in between blog posts and Reactor essays, I realised this is an issue other people have noticed, and a question other people have asked.

Ultimately, it seems, it boils down to this: there aren’t more older female mentors in fantasy because there aren’t many older women in fantasy, full stop. Or, to take this even further, there is a real lack of older women in media as a whole. Ageism is a well-documented problem in Hollywood, for example, where a recent study found that there is a sudden drop from female characters who are in their 30s (33%) to characters in their 40s (15%). Only 7% of female characters were aged 60 or over, which is nevertheless a slight improvement over the 5% reported by the same study conducted 2 years prior. While no such studies have been carried out about books, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if the numbers are very similar—after all, authors and screenwriters exist in the same cultural milieu and draw from the same inspirations.

This lack of older female representation, I believe, goes back to that belief that female characters need to be likeable to the average reader—so, we need to make them young, beautiful, nice, agreeable. Male mentors can be kooky and spooky and mad. Female mentors need to be palatable.

Except, as already discussed, female mentors don’t need to be likeable to be fascinating. They don’t need to be agreeable to have readers cheer them on. In fact, I believe it is precisely this lack of ‘relatability’ that gives female mentor characters their air of otherworldliness we, as readers, grow to love in characters like Baba Yaga and Granny Weatherwax. As fantasy is expanding, as more and more fresh, new, previously underrepresented voices enter it every day, I truly believe we’re due some excellent female mentors soon. I personally can’t wait.

Photo of Genoveva Dimova by Julie Broadfoot
Photo Credit: 2022 © JULIE BROADFOOT
Genoveva Dimova is a Bulgarian fantasy author and archaeologist based in Scotland. Her debut novel inspired by Slavic folklore, Foul Days, is coming out in June 2024, with the sequel, Monstrous Nights to follow in October 2024. When she’s not writing, she likes to explore old ruins, climb even older hills, and listen to practically ancient rock music. To keep up to date with news and updates about Genoveva’s books, join her newsletter at genovevadimova.com/newsletter or find her on Instagram at @gen_dimova.