The House of Binding Thorns
Aliette de Bodard
Not just one older woman, but a couple! It is not often that we get older queer women, which put Aliette de Boudard’s House of Binding Thorns immediately at the top of my list. Although Berith and Francoise appear, at first glance, to be merely a set of allies for Phillipe, the couple has a major role to play in Boudard’s sweeping series. Berith’s history and relationships change the course of events for the whole city. House of Binding Thorns is the second book in a wonderful series, so don’t be afraid to catch up with House of Shattered Wings first.
The Last Unicorn
Peter S. Beagle
A classic for a reason, The Last Unicorn gave readers many gifts, including Molly Grue. When the unicorn realizes she is the last of her kind and sets out to discover what happened to her kind. Along the way, she meets Schmendrick, a wizard, and Molly Grue, a flinty cook for a band of second-rate thieves. Molly invites herself a long, and thank goodness she does.
City of Blades
Robert Jackson Bennett
The second book in Jackson’s City of Stairs series follows General Turyin Mulaghesh, the foul-mouthed, middle-aged general from the first book, to ‘retirement’ in Voortyashtan. At least, that’s the cover story for her mission in the troubled city. I immediately loved Turyin in City of Stairs for the thorny older woman she is. I had fully expected her to get the secondary character treatment, due to her age, so I’m so thrilled she gets her own story in City of Blades.
The Folklore of Discworld
It would not be a list of recommended older women protagonists without the wyrd sisters witches of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are exactly the opposite of Molly Grue, while still being awesome. They are more likely to be shooing off a unicorn from their garden than they are to be waiting for one. Granny and the other witches star in Wyrd Sisters, and appear frequently through out the series of books, which are all worth a read, but if you want to know why the witches come in threes, The Folklore of Discworld (and its companion, The Science of Discworld) goes into all the detail you need for proper headology.
The Library of the Unwritten
A. J. Hackwith
By the time I got to read The Last Unicorn, the timeless fantasy by Peter Beagle, I was in my early thirties. I had already become Molly Grue. Molly laughed with her lips flat. “And what good is it to me that you’re here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?” With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. “I wish you had never come. Why did you come now?”
Fantasy is traditionally a world of youth. We all become Molly Grue, in time. We’re taught that adventures are for the beautiful, the inexperienced, and most of all, the young. It’s a weird slide for a reader. One day, you’re a sixteen year-old reading about chosen ones just a couple years older than you, the next day, you’re in your mid-thirties still enthralled with fantasy but unable to ignore the fact that the ‘chosen one’ hasn’t learned to make their own doctor appointments yet. “Where are the adults?” is a distracting way to break immersion.
Occasionally, we’re allowed a grizzled hero, but rarely a heroine. Sci-fi franchises are filled with grizzled, competent, world-weary men grumbling their way through a plot. We’ve realized that older characters allow readers to experience a depth to the world—a whole sense of time, of stories, that happened before the start of the book. Older characters enter the story with a network of existing relationships, allies, rivals, and philosophies. That’s rich for storytelling, and widens the scope past the typical young hero’s journey.
But, so often, only if you’re a man.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
Yes, there are older women in speculative fiction. It’s not that older women are not present in fiction, its the shortage of older women allowed to be protagonists. Over the age of, say thirty, our options are well defined: evil queen, mother, evil step-mother, plot-adjacent witch, and various forms of wise woman passively saying cryptic things. Over a certain age, women lose even the minimal ability to change the world and are only permitted to comment on it.
Why is this the case? Is it because the idea of change, of stories, of triumph are so hard to imagine for women with grey in their hair? Is it an innate lack of interest? Is there a natural maleficence to old age?
I propose it is because the traits of our popular protagonists—dynamic, able to make decisions, assert change counter to status quo—which are seen as positive in young characters and older men, are valued as negative in older women. A protagonist needs power, and the stories of women and power have, historically, been cautionary. An older woman who has a past must have done something shameful. An older woman who makes a decision and attempts to gain power to affect change must have harmful or self-serving motives. We can be villains, not heroes.
What are we losing, with that? What kind of tales are we telling ourselves? That if the unicorn does not come for us when we’re a child, then we are a tragedy, a story of time wasted?
That’s what some readers take from The Last Unicorn, but they’d be wrong. They’d forget that Molly Grue is, arguably, one of the most dynamic heroes in Peter Beagle’s tale. She is the one that takes action in the castle, who speaks up to a king, who sees what needs to change. Because the unicorn didn’t come for her when she was young, she developed the grit and the strength to see what needs doing and do it.
The unicorn wasn’t late. Molly Grue never needed the unicorn to become a hero.
So in the end, maybe Molly Grue isn’t such a bad person to become. Flinty, smart, and steady for the years. We need the stories of Molly Grue, of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, of Turyin Mulaghesh, and Berith the Fallen and hundreds of others to pave the way. To tell the tale of women who change the world, for the better, at any age.
And to give that unicorn hell when it comes.
Featured image: Shutterstock