May is Wyrd & Wonder and mental health awareness month, so it only makes sense to celebrate the 31st by smooshing them together into one post.
I meant to write this on Wednesday for Top 5 Wednesday, but I’ve been zonked out on allergy meds all week (one day the pharmaceuticals will develop a formula that doesn’t hit me like a freight train) and going to sleep at 6 and waking up at 3 AM.
So apologies in advance if I sound scattered and tired (however tired sounds like in a blog post).
But before we get started, I want to address something.
Hey, mainstream adult fantasy–epic fantasy, if we’re being particular–can we sit down and have a quick chat? It’ll only take a sec.
This is a topic that’s been a growing source of frustration for me in the last handful of years, and I’m going to bring it up again in another post soonish (hopefully) so I’ll keep it short and blunt today: why don’t more of your characters deal with mental health issues?
Why aren’t your Chosen Ones having panic attacks and breakdowns? Why isn’t your merry band of misfits dealing with the mental fallout from battles and murders and facing monstrosities and just the general “holy fuck” factor that comes with trying to save the world? It seems to be an unspoken rule that therapists can’t exist in fantasy worlds, so how are these people getting out of bed every morning holding determination in one hand and eagerness in the other?
Why is trauma a temporary roadblock that you can gently remove and set aside so that the heroes can go on with doing hero things?
I’m sorry if I seem frustrated and/or bitter but I’m tired and mental health is a topic that means everything to me, and when paired with fantasy, the resulting story can be powerful and validating. And while that isn’t to say I don’t love seeing mental health reps in contemporary and horror and thriller and scifi–because I do, I love it a lot–fantasy can explore mental health from angles that other genres can’t.
And I just–I don’t understand why that isn’t taken advantage of more often.
Writing multi-volume fantasy epics has never really been an aspiration for me when I was younger. I adore reading them, sure, but my projects always leaned more towards…Guillermo del Toro crossed with Markus Zusak.
I wouldn’t have guessed that the one thing that’ll push me into drafting an epic fantasy would be the lack of depressed protagonists in these stories.
Because at the end of the day, you try to create the things you want to see more of in the world and hope that by doing so you’ll help foster an ecosystem where more such creations can take root and grow and maybe become the norm.
So yeah…good chat, adult fantasy! Same time next week? 😀
The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth
Rep: PTSD, Depression
The Light Between Worlds is the portal fantasy I always wanted and finally got–a spiritual continuation of Narnia and every portal fantasy that has ever ended with the protagonists returning to the real world. The author doesn’t hold back on showing the ugliness of depression and the mental toll it takes on the people who have to watch you go through it.
One of the hardest and most rewarding books I’ve ever read.
The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller
Rep: Eating disorder
This book is important for several reasons:
1) It talks about eating disorders and body image from the perspective of a teenage boy, which is super rare in fiction.
2) It made me acknowledge things about myself that I never really wanted to acknowledge. You can read about the details in the review here, if you want. It’s a post I’m glad I’d written because the process was…cathartic, in a clobbered-with-a-sledgehammer sort of way. But occasionally I think back on it and get the urge to trash it because, holy hell, it’s so awfully personal. (Some good news, though: I’m 6 pounds up from last year. That doesn’t sound like much but considering where I started from, I’ll take it).
Also, I’ve seen complaints that Miller’s narrative romanticizes the act of starving. But I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder to read this and be like, “Yeah, this is the handbook for getting skinny.” I think readers can recognize the mental gymnastics we go through to convince ourselves into self-harming (which starving ultimately is) and Miller makes it crystal clear that Matt’s actions aren’t ideal.
Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb
Rep: Depression, PTSD, and more
If you want a prime example of how mental health can and should be addressed in high/epic fantasy, look no further. Depression, PTSD, self-esteem issues, suicide ideation–Hobb tackles all with absolute mastery (and I’m shocked and disappointed that the series didn’t spawn more high/epic fantasy books with similar themes). The series also has the best depiction of chronic loneliness I’ve come across in fiction. The kind that has no rhyme or reason and shadows you for years and years and years, waiting for moments when you’re most vulnerable. That’s a very hard thing get across in any story, and the fact that she does it in a fantasy one (across nine volumes) is remarkable.
The Hollow Folk series by Gregory Ashe
I er, think I’ve actually run out of words to describe these books.
If you’ve read any of my
dissertations reviews, you know how much the series means to me. Gregory Ashe draws on his own experiences with depression and slips them into his main character and the result is painful but so, so spot-on.
Arcadia Project Trilogy by Mishell Baker
Rep: Bipolar Disorder and more
Ninety percent of the characters in this series is a mess and that’s what makes them so great.
Arcadia Project is an ownvoices urban fantasy, and the author does a wonderful job of explaining BPD through her MC while also crafting a unique and entertaining story about faes and Hollywood and the messiness of relationships.
The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace
Rep: Depression (I think)
I just realized I’ve never talked about this book before on the blog which is crazy because it’s one of my favourite YA books released in the last two years. Memory Trees is all about female relationships–mothers and daughters, sisters, best friends, girlfriends–and the story puts a spotlight the MC’s mother and her mental illness and the events surrounding her hospitalization, which I thought was explored really well.
And okay, calling it a fantasy book is kind of an eyebrow-raising move because for most of it the only fantasy is in the way that Wallace approaches the story–as a dreamy inter-generational fable. The rest of it is a mix of contemporary, mystery, and historical fiction. But I swear, the magical stuff does rear its head at the end; you just have to squint to catch it.
Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher
Rep: The entirety of DSM-5
I’m uh, actually not too sure if this belongs here?
On one hand, I’m not kidding with the DSM-5 thing. Fletcher’s series has the most comprehensive exploration of mental illnesses–from kleptomania to schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder–I’ve ever seen in speculative fiction.
But I don’t know if I would call them representations, per se. In the Manifest Delusions world, your delusions give you power–so the more ill you are, the greater your control over reality. It’s similar to The Art of Starving in that sense, except this doesn’t address those issues from a positive, “This is how you can heal” perspective.
Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire
Rep: PTSD and more
I’m two books behind on the series, but Wayward Children is another portal fantasy story that deals with the trauma of being sent back to the real world, and just the general hardships that come with…well, living, and being different.
Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron
Rep: Agoraphobia, Anxiety, and more
Oh look, another portal fantasy! Says something about the subgenre, doesn’t it?
What I really loved about this story is that it features a father who is dealing with severe mental health issues (agoraphobia) and that’s not something I often find in fiction; it’s usually the mother figures who are depressed and ill and on medication. And Sophie Cameron talks about his illness in a really empathetic light, which is even rarer, so massive kudos to her for that.
Now for the video games!
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Rep: Psychosis, Depression
Hellblade is many things.
It’s the most candid look at psychosis (with auditory and visual hallucinations) I’ve seen in any fictional media.
It’s an example of how to go about representing mental disorders you don’t have personal experience with–doing thorough research and consulting mental health professionals and people who do have experiences with them.
It’s the story of a woman who makes her descent into Hel (literally and figuratively) at a time in her life when darkness is all that is seemingly left.
It’s one of my favourite games of all time, and it’s the one game that made me cry from beginning to end. (I cried so, so much)
I can’t begin tell you how grateful I am that Hellblade exists and that I had the opportunity to experience it. Senua’s story is one I’ll carry around for the rest of my life and I 100% would have gotten this quote tattooed if it’d been a bit shorter:
Never forget what it is like to see the world as a child, Senua: where every autumn leaf is a work of art; every rolling cloud, a moving picture; every day a new story. We too emerge from this magic, like a wave from the ocean, only to return back to the sea. Do not mourn the waves, the leaves and the clouds. Because even in darkness the wonder and beauty of the world never leaves. It’s always there, just waiting to be seen again.
Night in the Woods
Rep: Depression, disassociation
(Or as like to call it, Millenials: The Game)
I think there are three different lenses with which you can look at Night in the Woods:
1) A mystery/horror/fantasy story with cute (and queer) anthropomorphic animal characters getting caught up in strange happenings around town, all the while trying to navigate the murky waters of friendship, family, and romance.
2) A very pointed commentary on the state of capitalism suffocating small towns and older generations who would sacrifice their youth to maintain status quo and save their town from a broken economy that they helped dismantle in the first place.
3) A stark yet empathetic exploration of depression and existential crises from the PoV of young adults in their early 20’s.
…Or all three at the same time. That works too!
The Missing: J. J Macfield and the Field of Dreams
Here’s a crazy rundown of the first 15-ish minutes of this game:
You’re a college girl named J.J. and you and your best friend/maybe-girlfriend Emily are camping out on an island having a great time. But things black out and the next thing you know Emily has disappeared and you’re running through the island desperately searching for her. Then you get struck by lightning and die, but a moose doctor comes and resurrects you, so all’s good. Then you start getting text messages from the stuffed toy you’ve been carrying around (the stuffed toy that got destroyed in the lightning–so presumably it’s sending you messages from whatever afterlife toys get sent to). Meanwhile, Emily is still nowhere to be found.
…I’ll give you a second to soak that in.
Would it then surprise you to know that it offers one of most beautiful explorations of identity and self-acceptance I’ve come across in gaming?
The Missing is made by SWERY (aka Hidetaka Suehiro), and his games tend to be on the…trippy side. Bizarre and peppered with pop-culture references and off-beat humour, you love them or hate them.
I’m firmly in the former category. They’re not technical marvels, the controls can be wonky, the story dives into the nonsensical, but they’re never boring and there’s something incredibly endearing about them. (It helps that he’s an absolute sweetheart on social media)
Yes, that is SWERY. Yes, he is amazing.
Well, this jumps over “endearing” into “empowering” and “validating.”
The problem I have with media that explores mental health and LGBTQ+ issues is that they sometimes explore the pain side and kind of leave it at that. No closure. What stories like The Missing offer is that end piece–the sorely-needed ray of hope that yes, you can find peace and healing and come out on the other side stronger.
While I can’t personally speak for one of the representations that SWERY dives into (spoiler: transgender rep), other players can vouch that yes, he gets it right.
Please. Go play it. Or watch a playthrough/walkthrough of it.