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Thank you so much to all of this year’s guests for the amazing essays and another fantastic Women in SF&F Month! And thank you so much to everyone who shared guest posts and news of this year’s series—I really appreciate it!

This year’s series may be over, but I wanted to make sure there was a convenient way to find all of this year’s guest posts in case you missed any of them or are finding this later. This April was the eleventh annual Women in SF&F Month, which is dedicated to highlighting some of the many women doing wonderful work in speculative fiction. Guest posts include both discussions related to women in science fiction and/or fantasy and more general discussions about the genre(s), influences, writing, and creating stories, characters, and worlds.

You can browse through all the Women in SF&F Month 2022 guest posts here, or you can find a brief summary of each and its link below.

2022 Women in SF&F Month Guest Posts

Abdullah, Chelsea — “Why SFF?: Lies, Truths, and the Story Between Them”
The Stardust Thief author Chelsea Abdullah shared about some inspirations—such as oral storytelling, Arab representation in SFF, and blurred lines between truth and fiction—that had a role in her writing the personal story that became her debut novel.

Barnes, S. A. — “Give Me Messy Heroines”
Dead Silence author S. A. Barnes discussed wanting stories about flawed, imperfect heroines and writing about these types of characters in her own work.

Berwah, Tanvi — “A Girl and Her Maristag”
Monsters Born and Made author Tanvi Berwah shared about her love of monster companions and the trope of “a boy and his x” in fantasy—and how that had an influence on her YA debut novel.

Chee, Traci — “What Makes a Hero?”
The Reader author Traci Chee wrote about realizing that the hero’s journey didn’t quite fit the arc she wanted for her YA fantasy novel A Thousand Steps into Night—and discussed reconsidering some of our ideas about heroism.

El-Arifi, Saara — “Routes to my roots”
The Final Strife author Saara El-Arifi dedicated her Women in SF&F Month guest post to the Black women who preceded her, with a particular focus on Phillis Wheatley as the first writer of the Black diaspora.

Emrys, Ruthanna
The Innsmouth Legacy author Ruthanna Emrys discussed writing a story that reflected her experiences as a parent and combining parenting with first contact in her “diaperpunk” novel, A Half-Built Garden.

Evans, Davinia — “The Reason”
Notorious Sorcerer author Davinia Evans shared about her thought process when deciding to include more women in her fantasy debut novel—and the Notorious Sorcerer cover was revealed along with her guest post!

Falaye, Deborah — “We Are All a Little Morally Gray”
Blood Scion author Deborah Falaye wrote about having morally gray female characters in YA fiction and discussed making one the protagonist of her YA fantasy debut novel.

Gillig, Rachel — “Maidens, Monsters, and the Lines that Blur Between Them”
One Dark Window author Rachel Gillig discussed the monster/maiden dynamic and exploring it through a different type of maiden in her gothic fantasy novel.

Lin, Judy I. — “On Developing a Non-Combat Focused Magic System and Addressing Issues of Inequality Through Storytelling”
A Magic Steeped in Poison author Judy I. Lin discussed the tea-based magic system and worldbuilding in her YA fantasy debut novel.

Lyons, Jenn — “Out of the Maze”
A Chorus of Dragons author Jenn Lyons shared how Tenar’s story in The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin had an impact on her.

McMyne, Mary
The Book of Gothel author Mary McMyne wrote about her love of fairy tales and feminist retellings—and discussed exploring the Rapunzel folktale from the witch’s perspective in her debut novel.

Patel, Vaishnavi — “Divorcing the Evil Stepmother”
Kaikeyi author Vaishnavi Patel analyzed the evil stepmother trope and discussed telling a story from the perspective of one of these characters in her debut novel.

Rao, Kritika H. — “In Defense of Questions”
The Surviving Sky author Kritika H. Rao discussed the many questions explored in her science fantasy debut novel, such as those related to power and privilege as seen through the (often opposing) perspectives of a married couple.

Sim, Tara
Scavenge the Stars author Tara Sim shared about how she became a fantasy reader and writer, particularly how Alanna: The First Adventure gave her a love for girls with swords that had an influence on her novel The City of Dusk.

Unger, Kimberly
The Extractionist author Kimberly Unger shared some thoughts on research and including explanation when crafting stories, featuring an example from the science fiction TV series The Expanse.

Verma, Aparna — “The Need for Angry, Ruthless Women in Adult SFF”
The Boy with Fire author Aparna Verma wrote about Maa Kali, Rani Laxmi Bhai, and Begum Hazrat Mahal—and how they had an influence on Elena and Ferma, the female protagonist and her closest friend, in her debut novel.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Aparna Verma! She is the author of the first book in The Ravence Trilogy, The Boy with Fire, which is described as “a glorious yet brutal tour-de-force debut that grapples with the power and manipulation of myth in an Indian-inspired epic fantasy.” Leading up to its release last year, she wrote about it on Goodreads, calling it “a magical conglomeration of Dune, Hindu mythology, Game of Thrones, and ATLA.”

Cover of The Boy with Fire by Aparna Verma

The Need for Angry, Ruthless Women in Adult SFF
By: Aparna Verma

When I first came across Maa Kali, I thought she was more a demon than a goddess.

A garland of skulls adorned her neck. Her skin was pitch-black like darkness itself. In the picture book where I first saw her, Maa Kali stood on the body of a demon, one hand gripping its decapitated head, the other wielding a bloody sword. Her eyes bulged and her red tongue flared out of her mouth, vicious like a snake.

I was terrified.

Terrified, but intrigued.

Maa Kali, as fearsome as she seems, is one of the highly revered goddesses in Hinduism. During Navratri, a nine-day festival dedicated to Ma Durga (another manifestation of Maa Kali), Hindus pray to the goddess. She is believed to be the goddess of time, destruction, and death. She destroys the ego, thus allowing one to attain moksha, or freedom from the endless, tiresome cycle of reincarnation. She is both power and forgiveness.

And she’s a fierce warrior.

According to the Devi Mahatmyam, a Hindu philosophical text, Maa Kali saved the world, and the gods, by defeating the demon Mahishasura. Her rage, her bloodthirst, though terrifying, allowed the world to flourish. Why then is she so misunderstood?

I’ve come to realize that when ferocious women arise in history, when they try to claim power or upset the status quo through violence, they’re often seen as mad. Begum Hazrat Mahal, a queen who led an army against the British, was described to have a “savage disposition.” Rani Laxmi Bhai, one of the greatest freedom fighters of Indian history, was diminished by a British officer to be an “ardent, daring, licentious woman.”

In other words, a whore.

But Maa Kali and these freedom fighters are more than bloodthirsty warriors or mad women.

They’re guardians.

They all harbor a deep passion to protect the ones they love.

When I began writing The Boy with Fire, I could not forget Maa Kali or these freedom fighters. Their violence, their anger, was understandable. More importantly, it was useful. 

Elena Aadya Ravence, the female protagonist of my story, puts her anger to use. She bends fire to wreak havoc on her enemies. She destroys to protect her kingdom. Her male counterparts believe her to be mad, like Maa Kali, like Rani Laxmi Bhai, like Begum Hazrat Mahal, but her violence is exacting. Precise. Yes, she is full of grief. Yes, she is full of fury. But like the women and goddess who inspired her, Elena Aadya Ravence wields her anger as a weapon. She is not a Dany Targaryen. She is a guardian of a kingdom, and she will do anything to protect it.

But Maa Kali’s influence in my story did not end with just Elena. When Maa Kali battled against Mahishasura and his asuras, she summoned an army of female warriors: the chandikas. The chandikas were fierce, powerful, and, above all, loyal.

The Yumi in The Boy with Fire are a bit like the chandikas. A race of fierce warriors, the Yumi often serve as soldiers in the kingdoms of Sayon. The men are healers, but the women are the fighters. Tall, lithe, and quick, the female Yumi are blessed with long hair that can instantly sharpen into hundreds of shards. Think porcupine. Think Medusa, except instead of snakes, you have daggers. With their hair, the Yumi can cut through metal and flesh. As my copy editor noted, it’s quite useful.

Elena’s closest friend, Ferma, is a Yumi. Together, Elena and Ferma serve as an embodiment of Maa Kali and her chandikas. They are both women who trained to become protectors. Fueled by grief and fury, they seek to create a world of peace, even if that peace may not be for themselves.

The Boy with Fire is a story of sin, sacrifice, and power. It pits characters of questionable morals against each other. But more importantly, it depicts women who are ruthless yet strategic. Flawed, but honorable. They are not Dany Targaryens who succumb to madness simply because they became too powerful.

I’m over that kind of storytelling.

It’s time we have angry, violent women in adult SFF who aren’t depicted as mad killers, but as valiant guardians, like Maa Kali, Rani Laxmi Bhai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and all the unrecorded women of history who picked up the sword to protect the ones they love. I hope that when readers pick up The Boy with Fire, they’ll see Elena and Ferma as protectors. Violent and flawed, but in the end, women who dared.

Photo of Aparna Verma Aparna Verma was born in India and immigrated to the United States when she was two-years-old. She graduated from Stanford University with Honors in the Arts and a B.A. in English. The Boy with Fire is her first novel.

When she is not writing, Aparna likes to ride horses, dance to Bollywood music, and find old cafes to read myths about forgotten worlds. You can connect with Aparna on Twitter and Instagram at @spirited_gal.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is science fiction and fantasy author Kritika H. Rao! Her science fantasy debut novel, The Surviving Sky, is set in “plant-made civilizations held together by tradition, technology, and arcane science” floating above an uninhabitable planet. It follows a married couple, one of whom is an architect with abilities that help them remain afloat and the other of whom does not have this capability—and it’s scheduled for release this fall!

The Surviving Sky Graphic


I always knew I was writing science fantasy, but in the early days of writing The Surviving Sky, when people asked me what my book was about, I—like many writers—fumbled the answer magnificently. After all, I was spending an entire book’s worth of words to answer that very question. If I could tell you what it was about in a few pat lines, I wouldn’t need to write that book.

Of course, since then, I’ve learned my loglines and my tropes, my tweet-length synopses and my clever metaphors. It’s a story about a husband-wife duo who are trying to save their marriage while they try to save their flying plant city from crashing into jungle storms. It’s a meditation on power and privilege, who we love, why we love, and the cost of love. It’s a critique of capitalism, a story about duty and shared human society, a reflection on our relationship to survival and our damaged environment, and an exploration into the way all of our actions impact our very consciousness. It’s very epic, very awesome, and it has EVERYTHING AAAA!

One truth is that this kind of answer is very common to most writers, to a certain extent. We pour a lot of ourselves and our thoughts and experiences into our stories; so, for us, it is hard to delineate themes and say, “Yes, this is exactly what our books are about.”

Another truth is there truly is a lot packed into The Surviving Sky. All of the above answers feel like they’re getting to the crux, but are not quite accurate. It feels like a hunt, as though each answer is a wolf closing in, that as a pack they are nearing their quarry. But the answer is elusive, it isn’t quite caught yet, it isn’t quite understood, though it has been sighted.

This may be a grand statement for me to be making about a book I wrote, my debut no less, but frankly, my answer on what the book is about changes with the framing of the question. It is often based on who the questioner is. And that, I think, is key to a book like The Surviving Sky.


One answer I often give, and one that is deeply inherent to the book, is that it is an exploration of power and privilege.

Exploration, I think, is a very important word here.

There is a pivotal scene early in the story where Ahilya, one of the protagonists, thinks to herself of all the many ways in which architects like her husband, Iravan, are so used to the world submitting to their magic that they never see how monstrous it is that survival itself is created to be architect-dependent.

Everything from their language (the fact that they refer to people like Ahilya as non-architects, ha!) to the permissions of the city (who gets access to magic first and how) is dictated by where power lies. Yet the world works in such a way that the cooperation and consciousness of non-magic folk is imperative to keep the city in flight lest it crash to the earthrages. Ahilya herself, though she would likely not admit it (or more importantly, acknowledge it), has so much power, that she holds Iravan’s magic and his ability to manipulate the world, and in some ways, his very sanity, in the palm of her hand. Both those powers are intertwined deeply, so where does true power really lie?

This question intrigues me on multiple levels.

I think this, in the end, was my favorite part of writing this book; the fact that I could pose questions, often from two very opposing perspectives with Iravan and Ahilya who are on opposite sides of the spectrum, without making a judgement call on the answer. While all the plot questions are answered, deeper questions like this are explored with many possible answers; and that answer, dear reader, is up to you.

My job as a writer is merely to incite curiosity—whether it is on theories of power or of consciousness. The way I see it—questions are far more interesting than answers. We forget the role of dialectics in knowledge-building when we engage in competitive debate—and my hope with The Surviving Sky is that readers are caught in the passions of the two characters and their opposing viewpoints so much that it makes them question their own point of view when it comes to the above themes amongst others.


Another question the protagonists think of often is their culture, both shared and forgotten. As an archeologist, Ahilya is plagued by the absence and erasure of her own history; how no one knows, let alone cares very much about non-architect culture; that in their world, no records exist of people who cannot do magic; and that she and her ancestors have never been more than set pieces to the glamorous heroic histories of the architects.

What’s worse for her is that no one besides herself thinks there is anything wrong with that—not even others who can’t perform magic. She is an anomaly even among her own kind, questioning the very basis of survival—and for her, questioning itself is a political and imaginative act. The answers almost don’t matter, but the very fact that she is asking questions and living in that space of uncertainty makes her different.

This, in so many ways, is one of the things that makes science fiction and fantasy so beautiful—the fact that there is a lot we cannot know, but a lot we will nevertheless explore. The best SFF to me leaves the reader with more questions than answers—and I think sometimes we forget just how satisfying a good question can be.

In this age of insta-answers, insta-interpretation, insta-information, we find it almost offensive if something isn’t instantly clear, but in my experience as a teacher and a student, it is often the questions and the exploration of them that have the potential to bring people closer together than any answer. I worry sometimes about what we are losing when we demand answers before we have fully pondered a question and its shape in the first place.

For me, those questions were where I got the idea for the story. The Surviving Sky was influenced from my learnings of the Vedas and Upanishads, from studying Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s work and re-reading the poetic text Gita (which is a study in contradictions and questioning). It touches on karma, birth, rebirth, reincarnation, time, awareness, freedom and the nature of thought and intention and the meaning of mind itself—all through posing different questions through separate devices, all through a breakneck plot and a slow-burn romance.

I don’t often use those specific terms very much in the book at all because of how much they have been sullied, and how badly they have been appropriated and mangled. But at the heart of it, there is always one more question, one more mystery.

And that I think, if anything, is truly the realm of science fiction and fantasy. So when someone asks me what my book is about, I think the most accurate answer is that it is an homage to the questioning mind.

Photo of Kritika H. Rao Kritika H. Rao is a science fiction and fantasy writer, who has lived in India, Australia, Canada, and The Sultanate of Oman. Kritika’s stories are influenced by her lived experiences, and often explore themes of consciousness, self vs. the world, and identity. When she is not writing, she is probably making lists. You might catch her on Twitter or Instagram @KritikaHRao or visit her online at www.kritikahrao.com.

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests for making it another great week of essays (plus one cover reveal)!

The last two guest posts of this year’s Women in SF&F Month will be going up on Monday and Tuesday. But before announcing the schedule, here are last week’s essays in case you missed any of them.

All of the guest posts from April 2022 can be found here, and last week’s guest posts were:

And there are two more guest posts to come, starting tomorrow morning! These are by:

Women in SF&F Month 2022 Week 4 Graphic

April 25: Kritika H. Rao (The Surviving Sky)
April 26: Aparna Verma (The Boy with Fire)

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Davinia Evans! Her debut novel, the fantasy adventure Notorious Sorcerer, will be available on September 13—and I’m delighted to also be revealing its cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio and Andrew Broyzna!

Cover of Notorius Sorcerer by Davinia Evans
(click to enlarge)
Cover Design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
Cover Silhouette Illustration by Andrew Broyzna


In a city filled with dangerous yet heavily regulated alchemical magic, a man from the slums discovers he may be its only hope to survive certain destruction in this wickedly entertaining fantasy debut. 

Ever since the city of Bezim was shaken half into the sea by a magical earthquake, the Inquisitors have policed alchemy with brutal efficiency. Nothing too powerful, too complicated, too much like real magic is allowed–and the careful science that’s left is kept too expensive for any but the rich and indolent to tinker with. Siyon Velo, a glorified errand boy scraping together lesson money from a little inter-planar fetch and carry, doesn’t qualify.

But when Siyon accidentally commits a public act of impossible magic, he’s catapulted into the limelight. Except the limelight is a bad place to be when the planes themselves start lurching out of alignment, threatening to send the rest of the city into the sea.

Now Siyon, a dockside brat who clawed his way up and proved himself on rooftops with saber in hand, might be Bezim’s only hope. Because if they don’t fix the cascading failures of magic in their plane, the Powers and their armies in the other three will do it for them.

The Reason

I like to read storytelling that feels intentional. Like the author made choices—careful or cunning or gleeful—to include these words, these characters, these elements of story and world and theme. That the story was crafted.

Everything is there for a reason, you could say.

And yet, I flinch from that question: Is there a reason to include this?

This romance.

This queer character.

This woman.

Is she here for a reason?


The first version of my debut novel, Notorious Sorcerer, was actually a fanfic, taking some beloved characters and putting them into a fantasy world and story of my own devising. For reasons good, bad and ugly, a lot of fandoms were (bless their hearts) a bit of a cockforest. To include even a few women in my fanfic, I had to hunt around the fringes. But that’s how that particular cookie crumbled.

When I decided to expand that little flight of fancy into a proper novel, one of my first notes was “More women.” (In all-caps and underlined.) This was my cookie; it crumbled like I wanted.

The obvious first choice would be to genderflip one of the two main characters. But the more I considered it, the less I liked it. For starters, the story involved a romantic element, and I didn’t like removing queer characters for the sake of adding female ones. (Is there a reason for her? A reason for them?)

And when I changed one character to a woman, the dynamic changed in ways that I could feel but not quite put my finger on. It put a whole new slant on their bickering, their negotiation, their banter. I finally realised that, to quote the inestimable wisdom of Avril Lavigne: “He was a boy / She was a girl / Can I make it any more obvious?”

Sure, I could decide what gender and relations meant within the fantasy society I created, but I have no control over what a reader brings to reading the story. And for a lot of readers (like me) when you get a story with a complicated and intense dynamic between characters of opposite genders, we all know where this is going. The dynamic did have a romantic element, but I didn’t like how obvious—how much bigger and more important—that felt when the characters conformed to a more heteronormative view of the world. (Is there a reason why they kiss? Is there a reason why they don’t kiss?)

I briefly considered making them both women. At the time, I shied away from an all-female main cast. Given the book’s themes of individual innovation and breaking-away-from-the-system, it felt a little overtly sisters-against-the-patriarchy, and I wasn’t sure I was angry enough to write that book. These days, I might feel differently. Max Gladstone’s done some absolutely kick-ass majority-female books. And I’m only getting angrier.

So I left those two main characters as men. I later added in two additional main characters, sisters with plenty of troubles of their own, but before I got to that, I considered the wider world of the story, and started asking my own question:

Is there a reason for this character not to be a woman?


I don’t just want to see women in stories. I want to see interesting women. I want to see all sorts of women. I want to see cis and trans women. I want to see these women having all the sorts of adventures, storylines, discoveries, agencies as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing men having. I want to see so many women that some can be “bad” and some can be “good” and some can be “problematic” and some can be all three and more in the one package, and all of that can be interrogated. I want to see angry women and feminine women and intelligent women and forgetful women and cheerful uncaring women and women who are tired and just want a damn drink. I want women who are all of these and more.

I want to see different sorts of male characters. I want to see characters who are non-binary, or aligned with different gender spectrums, or exploring options.

I want to see all sorts of people.

Is there a reason we’re not?


My world was still half-formed and malleable, when I started asking my question. The original version of the story hadn’t been very long, and the world had been commensurately thin. I didn’t have baked-in gender assumptions yet, ways it had to be for the system to make sense. Could the current ruler of the city, whose missing son kicks off a big chunk of the plot, be a woman? No reason why not! Could the leader of one of the street-duelling gangs to which our hero belongs be a woman? Yeah, sure! What about the mentor-type figure to whom our hero looks up? Definitely, she can be a woman too.

I ended up with a world full of women at all echelons of society. Women wielding power, finding fulfilment, behaving badly, being role-models, making messes. I ended up with a world where there was no reason why any character couldn’t be a woman.

I’m not saying the setting of Notorious Sorcerer is a gender-neutral space. There are still some very gendered elements, and no doubt a whole lot of assumptions I carried in with me that I didn’t even realise I had. But I have had an interesting time exploring the results of that one little question—is there any reason why not a woman?

And it meant that when I added those new main characters—a pair of sisters up against the expectations and flaws of society—those expectations didn’t specifically include “what is expected of women”. Both sisters are struggling with finding meaning, finding fulfilment, finding a way to make their own space in the world. And yes, they’re also struggling with a disappointing marriage and coming-of-age worries, but those things aren’t women-only problems—not in the world I made up, nor the world I live in.

We all have our struggles. We often don’t get to shed the layer of gender assumptions, expectations, restrictions. We often accrue extra layers, tangled up with the demands of others. With the assumptions they’re bringing to the story of our lives. (Can I make it any more obvious?)

But perhaps part of how we change that—keep changing it, because things have shifted so much even in the time I’ve been writing this one story—is by asking those questions.

Is there any reason not to have a woman? A queer character? A romance?

What am I including? What am I leaving out?

It’s always a choice. Make it intentional. Make it with care.

Photo of Davinia Evans
Photo Credit: Gray Tham of Simply Gray Photography
Davinia Evans was born in the tropics and raised on British comedy. With a lifelong fantasy-reading habit and an honours thesis in political strategy, it was perhaps inevitable that she turn to a life of crafting stories full of sneaky ratbags tangling with magic. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with two humans (one large and one small), a neurotic cat, and a cellar full of craft beer. Dee talks more about all of that on Twitter as @cupiscent

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Vaishnavi Patel! She’s the author of “Logic Puzzles,” “The Sister Line,” and Kaikeyi—the latter of which comes out next week! Her debut novel, available on April 26, “reimagines the life of the infamous queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana, weaving a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—and an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.” (And on a personal note, I am reading it now and loving everything—the writing,  the story, and most of all, Kaikeyi herself.)

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel - Book Cover

Divorcing the Evil Stepmother

The character of the evil stepmother is ubiquitous in myth, folktale, and fiction across the world. From stories like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” to modern plot lines in movies and TV shows, the evil stepmother character remains a popular villain archetype. But why is that? Why are we so eager to villainize women who, to our eyes, do not fit into the neatest possible category of motherhood?

To be sure, the actions of evil stepmothers in these stories are deplorable—and by stepmothers, I mean women married to a man with children from outside that marriage. Cinderella’s stepmother is downright abusive and genuinely evil, given the story as we know it. But Cinderella and all the other myths and legends I discuss are stories. In telling stories, authors make decisions about how to portray characters—they are not merely recounting objective biographical facts. Even when basing stories on real events, authors choose whose perspective to give, whose thoughts to privilege and whose motivations to assume the worst about. And of course, stepmothers in real life are just normal humans, on some shade of the good and evil spectrum. So why, then, is the evil stepmother the classic trope?

Stepmothers are, by definition, not the biological mother of the child they are parenting (my analysis is limited to portrayals of straight couples, but of course this trope also implicates judgments about any societally “atypical” family). Because they are marrying a man who has a child old enough to be the hero of a story, these fictional stepmothers usually fall into one of three categories: they are either entering a subsequent marriage themselves, they are unmarried and of an age that marks them as undesirable, or they are younger than the father by a significant margin. All of the stepmother figures are united in hating their stepchildren, and the different versions of the trope are generally used to feed into specific stereotypes about women, none of them kind.

The first category, which we might think of as the Cinderella type, is a stepmother that is either a shrew whose husband left her or perhaps is responsible for the demise of her husband. The second category, of Snow White or Hansel & Gretel fame, features women who are of the same age as their husbands but previously unmarried; impliedly because something may be wrong with them. And the third category, seen in one of my favorite childhood movies, The Parent Trap, is the young gold digger. There are countless other evil stepmothers out there across the fictional universe who themselves fit these categories, from the stepmother in Vasilisa the Fair (previously married) to the disguised troll in an episode of the TV show Merlin (both unmarriageable and a gold digger!). The woman who almost marries Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music also falls into several of these stereotypes, in contrast with Maria, who does not want money or marriage and simply happens upon it. Maria, by virtue of her penitent background in the abbey, is seen as far more sympathetic than the worldly Baroness.

Of course, we know that real people’s marriages fail all the time for reasons that don’t have to do with the woman being a bad person. Women choose not to marry for a variety of reasons. And often in straight couples with a much younger woman, if there is fault to be found among the parties, it does not lie with the woman. But the evil stepmother trope allows us to instead project our worst stereotypes of women—women are vain, women only care about a man’s money, women are jealous and petty, and on and on—onto these characters and show that these stereotypes are deserved. And these women, we are told, are decidedly evil because they commit the worst sin of all: they are bad mothers. Never mind that the fathers in the situation were perfectly fine marrying someone who despised their child. We are to vilify the woman.

My personal interest lies in an even more ancient source: mythology. There are several examples of “stepmother” characters in mythology. One of the most prominent examples might be Hera from Greek mythology. Hera and Zeus have their own children, who Hera sometimes loves (Ares) and sometimes rejects (Hephaestus). But Hera goes out of her way to be cruel to Zeus’s other children, rendering their lives into horrible tragedies. And while Zeus isn’t portrayed as a perfect god, the fact that he goes around having his way with women without regard or care for his children does not really mar his rule of the gods. Hera, on the other hand, is often the picture of a stereotypical jealous shrew—we look at her and think there is a reason that Zeus is straying; her unhappiness about her husband’s infidelity is her own moral failing.

Kaikeyi is another example of this trope, from the Indian epic the Ramayana. Kaikeyi is the hero Rama’s stepmother in the sense that she is married to his father but is not his biological mother; Rama’s real mother is also present in the story. Even given this minor distinction, Kaikeyi falls into the evil stepmother trope quite neatly. In the myth, Kaikeyi exiles Rama to put her own son on the throne. She is interested in keeping power as Queen Mother and accruing power to her biological son. Despite the fact that she is a warrior and well-respected queen prior to the exile, none of that changes Kaikeyi’s pure evil stepmother portrayal in most versions of the Ramayana today. Kaikeyi is often contrasted not just with her fellow queens Kaushalya and Sumitra, neither of whom try to seize power, but with Yashoda, the foster mother of the god Krishna. Neither Yashoda nor her husband are Krishna’s biological parents, but they choose to save him from death at great risk to themselves and raise him as their own. So Hindu mythology has examples of kind stepmothers and adoptive mothers—what sets Kaikeyi apart, in a way, is that she is too ambitious.

In particular, the evil stepmother trope serves to villainize atypical mothers. The stepmothers of stories often have multiple failings—they’re not just cruel to their stepchild but also interested in money and power, things that, these stories may posit, women should not crave. All of the “evil stepmothers” discussed above have characteristics that render them atypical for the purest form of a stereotyped ideal woman. Snow White’s evil stepmother in the Grimm fairy tale is a practitioner of the dark arts; Cinderella’s evil stepmother is prideful of her own daughters; Hera was too stubborn and willful to marry Zeus despite his repeated advances; Kaikeyi was a warrior before she became a mother, and was even gifted boons by the king for her service, something he ultimately came to regret when she used them to exile Rama.

By choosing to portray stepmothers as unloving people who commit these horrifying deeds, we are often giving in to age-old sexist stereotypes. There’s nothing inherently evil about stepmothers. In recent memory, blended families have become more common and socially accepted. I think many of us probably know more wonderful stepmothers than bad ones. So perhaps it is time to move past uncritically using this trope. In my novel Kaikeyi, Kaikeyi is a loving stepmother who is nevertheless deeply imperfect. While many of her actions are the same, and she is certainly flawed, she is not motivated by a preference for her biological children. By exploring her journey beginning in her own childhood, her triumphs and failures are part of what makes her a whole person. Portraying women in fiction as complicated and flawed not only allows us to defy the “mandated” role of women as a wife and mother but also makes for a more interesting and truthful story—and that, ultimately, is the point of fiction.

Photo of Vaishnavi Patel Vaishnavi Patel is a law student focusing on constitutional law and civil rights. She likes to write at the intersection of Indian myth, feminism, and anti-colonialism. Vaishnavi grew up in and around Chicago and, in her spare time, enjoys activities that are almost stereotypically Midwestern: knitting, ice-skating, drinking hot chocolate, and making hotdish. Her debut novel Kaikeyi, a retelling of the Indian myth the Ramayana from the perspective of the evil stepmother, is out April 26, 2022.