Mental Health Representation in Fantasy Novels

Mental health and fantasy: I know that seems like an odd combination of words. One of the many wonderful things about fantasy, though, is the way it can be used as a place to be incredibly truthful while at the same time completely fantastical. Unfortunately, as with other genres, fantasy seems to be fighting against that same stigma against mental illness. It isn’t often that mental illness is really represented respectfully in fantasy, so when I come across a book that either has a character with a mental illness or explores themes involving mental illness, I notice.

I remember the very first fantasy book I read that had a mental illness represented. It wasn’t the main plotline of the story; in fact, it was just a part of who one of the characters was. It was something they had, but it didn’t define them. I love that so very much. What I don’t love in fantasy, as with any other genre, is mental illness being the throwaway reason for atrocious acts. I am so excited to say that I am seeing less and less of that in fantasy over the years (thrillers and mysteries seem to still have a way to go in that regard).

Here are a few books that either have a character with a mental illness (done respectfully) or have themes of mental illness, such as depression. Because who says you can’t discuss mental health and dragons in the same book?

For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig

A young woman with a dangerous power she barely understands. A smuggler with secrets of his own. A country torn between a merciless colonial army, a terrifying tyrant, and a feared rebel leader. The first book in acclaimed author Heidi Heilig’s Shadow Players trilogy blends traditional storytelling with ephemera for a lush, page-turning tale of escape and rebellion. For a Muse of Fire will captivate fans of Sabaa Tahir, Leigh Bardugo, and Renée Ahdieh.
Jetta’s family is famed as the most talented troupe of shadow players in the land. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets seem to move without string or stick—a trade secret, they say. In truth, Jetta can see the souls of the recently departed and bind them to the puppets with her blood. But ever since the colonizing army conquered their country, the old ways are forbidden. Jetta must never show, never tell. Her skill and fame are her family’s way to earn a spot aboard the royal ship to Aquitan, where shadow plays are the latest rage, and where rumor has it the Mad King has a spring that cures his ills. Because seeing spirits is not the only thing that plagues Jetta. But as rebellion seethes and as Jetta meets a young smuggler, she will face truths and decisions that she never imagined—and safety will never seem so far away. (taken from Amazon)

I remember being astounded when I picked up For a Muse of Fire. The main character, Jetta, had an illness that I understood. There were symptoms of extreme depression, and what seemed like mania. Surely, it couldn’t possibly be bipolar disorder, right? I mean, the number of times I’d read a character with bipolar disorder in fantasy books was a big, glaring zero. I read and loved the book, then checked the author’s note at the back. Not only does the character have bipolar disorder, but lithium (one of the main medications for bipolar disorder) also plays a role in the book. The author handled the topic wonderfully, probably because she has bipolar disorder herself. I was gobsmacked. It was so cool to see a character that I could relate to in that way.

Review

Vultures by Luke Tarzian

An enemy slain is not a conflict won…


After decades of war the demon Te Mirkvahíl is dead. But its progeny endure, spilling from the Heart of Mirkúr, sowing death across the land of Ariath. If the people are to finally know peace, the Heart must be destroyed. Theailys An believes he can do just that with The Keepers’ Wrath, an infamous power focus wrought in Ariath’s yesteryears–but the weapon first must be reforged.


War spares no one…


Serece never intended to get involved in Ariath’s war. But history and demons have a way of pulling strings. When she learns Theailys An, a man whom she abhors, bears striking similarity to the first creator of The Keepers’ Wrath, Serece departs her mountain world for Ariath to ascertain the truth.


From patience, hope…


For millennia Behtréal has walked the world alone. Rewriting history to resurrect his people is easier said than done. But Ariath holds the key–soon The Keepers’ Wrath will be remade.


Truth from madness…


As paths converge and a shadow falls across Ariath, one thing becomes increasingly and horrifyingly clear–these events have played out many times before. (Taken from Amazon)

Vultures is a very dark, incredibly brilliant book that explores themes of mental illness, grief, and loss. Author Luke Tarzian describes Vultures as being “very much a story about love, loss, grief, and mental illness through the eyes of reluctant heroes.” (interview here) This is not a comfortable book; rather it is dark and brings the reader face to face with villains both physical and emotional. If you don’t mind harsher storylines, Vultures is excellent.

Review

The Cursed Titans by Ricardo Victoria

The triennial Chivalry Games have returned! After helping to destroy the Withered King, Alex and the rest of the group find out that saving the world has consequences. While he is secretly battling with depression and with the Alliance on the verge of collapse, a diplomatic summit and the Chivalry Games—to be held in the far off Kuni Empire—may give everyone the opportunity to turn things around. Alex builds a team to represent the Foundation in the Games, facing off against the best fighters in the world. When an ancient being tries to raise legendary nightmares known as Titans using the peace talks as a trap, Alex has to find a way to save everyone before it is too late. Alex must learn that he is not truly alone to save the world from the chaos of the Titans. In a world where magic and science intermingle, anything is possible. (taken from Amazon)

Author Ricardo Victoria drew on his own experiences with depression when writing The Cursed Titans. The rawness of that story arc blends in beautifully with what is, at its core, a story of hope. One thing that I loved about how mental illness is portrayed in this series so far is that it accurately shows (in my opinion) how depression can affect people, but not in a way that was ever detrimental to my own mental health. It also shows that a person is much much more than any illness they have, whether it is visible or not.

Review

Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Once merely creatures of legend, the dragons have returned to Krynn. But with their arrival comes the departure of the old gods—and all healing magic. As war threatens to engulf the land, lifelong friends reunite for an adventure that will change their lives and shape their world forever . . . 
 
When Tanis, Sturm, Caramon, Raistlin, Flint, and Tasslehoff see a woman use a blue crystal staff to heal a villager, they wonder if it’s a sign the gods have not abandoned them after all. Fueled by this glimmer of hope, the Companions band together to uncover the truth behind the gods’ absence—though they aren’t the only ones with an interest in the staff. The Seekers, a new religious order, wants the artifact for their own ends, believing it will help them replace the gods and overtake the continent of Ansalon. Now, the Companions must assume the unlikely roles of heroes if they hope to prevent the staff from falling into the hands of darkness. (taken from Amazon)

The Dragonlance Chronicles has the very first character with a mental illness that I ever read in a fantasy novel. Sturm is a knight, and his honor is everything to him. He also struggles with depression. While he has never been my favorite character in the series, it meant so much to see my depression reflected in a fantasy novel for the first time. Another thing that I love about how his depression is depicted is that it is made abundantly clear that it is something he has, not who he is. He is compassionate, brave, and loyal. His friends understand that he has “dark moods” and they become concerned about him, but they never give up on him or judge him. It’s a breath of fresh air.

Character Profile

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Six years ago, sisters Evelyn and Philippa Hapwell were swept away to a strange and beautiful kingdom called the Woodlands, where they lived for years. But ever since they returned to their lives in post-WWII England, they have struggled to adjust.
Ev desperately wants to return to the Woodlands, and Philippa just wants to move on. When Ev goes missing, Philippa must confront the depth of her sister’s despair and the painful truths they’ve been running from. As the weeks unfold, Philippa wonders if Ev truly did find a way home, or if the weight of their worlds pulled her under.
Walking the line between where fantasy and reality meet, this lyrical and magical novel is, above all else, an exploration of loss and healing, and what it means to find where you belong. (taken from Amazon)

This book is beautiful, but oh my goodness, it is sad! The Light Between Worlds shows the struggles of depression and grief, and how self-harm can become an addiction. I would highly suggest taking care when picking up this book: while I feel that it has an accurate and respectful representation of mental illness, I think it might be a difficult read for some people.

Review

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

As the Shadow of Mordor grows across the land, the Companions of the Ring have become involved in separate adventures. Aragorn, revealed as the hidden heir of the ancient Kings of the West, has joined with the Riders of Rohan against the forces of Isengard, and takes part in the desperate victory of the Hornburg. Merry and Pippin, captured by Orcs, escape into Fangorn Forest and there encounter the Ents. Gandalf has miraculously returned and defeated the evil wizard, Saruman. Sam has left his master for dead after a battle with the giant spider, Shelob; but Frodo is still alive—now in the foul hands of the Orcs. And all the while the armies of the Dark Lord are massing as the One Ring draws ever nearer to the Cracks of Doom. (taken from Amazon)

I cannot say with certainty how accurately The Return of the King portrays PTSD, but I think that Frodo is a good representation of the struggles that PTSD causes in someone. I wonder if perhaps Tolkien used some of his own experience as a soldier to better show what Frodo was going through. I think some things become a “before” vs “after” experience: before the experience that caused PTSD vs. how life is after.

I was chatting with BeforeWeGoBlog about respectful and accurate mental health representation in fantasy, and she suggested both the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire and Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. I haven’t read either of these, aside from one Wayward Children book (not the first in the series, either), but I think I’ll need to get to them sooner rather than later.

What do you think? What other fantasy books portray mental illness well? Have you read any of these?

13 thoughts on “Mental Health Representation in Fantasy Novels

  1. “One of the many wonderful things about fantasy, though, is the way it can be used as a place to be incredibly truthful while at the same time completely fantastical. ” This is one of my favorite things about fantasy (not that I ever have favorites)!

    I don’t really know what fantasy books I’ve read portray mental illness well. I’d probably notice one that portrayed it badly – and throw it out for poor character development or some disgusting trope or something like that. Done well, I wouldn’t categorize it as a “novel that portrays mental illness well” since I don’t tend to use categories like that in my own thoughts, and what I really care about is character development being well-done. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my characters have struggles with mental illness; in fact, I suspect that Amrath’s tantrum throwing every time someone mentions her mother or does anything that seems to her like “trying to mother her” or notices anything that reminds her of her past life, and several other behaviors she exhibits, constitute a form of “mental illness” or “PTSD,” and I certainly hope I did it well, but I think of it as “I hope I developed her character well.” I wasn’t thinking about mental illness; I was just thinking about how she would respond to what she experienced. I always try to do that when I write; really go into, how would this person respond, and I’m pretty sure I have at least one other case of what would be categorized as mental illness that’s pretty strong in a character in one of my works-in-progress. But just as when I’m writing I just think about character development, so when I’m reading I just think about character development, so there are books that do that well, and books that do that badly, and I don’t know what the fine line between having mental illness or not is. Vanyel in the Last Herald-Mage Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey (one of my favorite characters in one of my favorites books/series) seems to have a condition that might qualify at times; he’s on what he describes as a ‘hair trigger’ at one point, and copes with his soul-crushing grief at the loss of his lifebond and the threats and dangers he (and anyone he loves) are exposed to because he’s the most powerful Herald-Mage in Valdemar by working hard and keeping busy and pouring himself out for his land… I loved him. But I simply think of him as an awesomely well-written well-developed real-person-feeling character, not “well-done mental illness representation,” so I don’t actually know if the Last Herald-Mage Trilogy qualifies for what you’re asking for. It’s the only thing that comes to mind at the moment though (though I may have read a few others that have the representation you are looking for; it stands out because it’s one of my favorite novels with some of the best character-development I’ve ever seen).

    I do agree it’s horrible when people portray having mental illness struggles as the reason for being villainous! That’s not fair, nor accurate, nor true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fantastic post! I especially appreciate that not all of these are modern representations, where authors can state for sure that they meant to portray a specific representation of mental health. It’s great to be able to find examples that stretch beyond the confirmed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are absolutely right. Mystery and thrillers have a very long way to go to present a healthy image of mental health. I am definitely going to check out the one with the bipolar character. It’s not often I read about people like me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post and thank you for tackling it.

    Off the top of my head, I felt that Bujold’s Paladin of Souls got something of the soul of ‘recovery’* right, and The Wheel of Time really made me believe they were going through some heavy problems upstairs. But I daresay there are better, just need to think on it.

    *I love stories of recovery, but one of the things that seems to be the case with mental health to me is that not all of us get better, and the difference in narratives that show overcoming it vs living with it is a big thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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