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