Older Heroines in Speculative Fiction

Perhaps one of the strangest things about speculative fiction is the tendency for the world to be saved by teenagers. And although it’s fun to read about the romantic certainty of a first love, we all know that there’s much more to a woman’s life than that, which speculative fiction can explore in a unique way. So, with that in mind, we present our top ten older heroines in speculative fiction.

Diana, in A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
A mid-career historian with a research post at the University of Oxford, it’s fair to say that Diana is successful in her chosen field. And if she’s avoiding her magical heritage – well, it’s understandable, in the circumstances. Everything changes when a stunningly gorgeous vampire turns up at the Bodleian, but what makes this book stand out in the packed field of paranormal romance is not only the age of the heroine, but the fact that her carefully honed research skills continue to be plot-critical throughout.

Liesl, in The Buried Life by Carrie Patel
Inspector Liesl Malone is a hardened criminal investigator, but a murder amongst the ruling classes brings her into an uncomfortable world of politics and intrigue that doesn’t sit well with her straightforward manner. Forced to work with an inexperienced new partner (an actor, of all things!), and with a young amateur sticking her nose in, this case is proving to be more than she bargained for.

Devi, in Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach
Aged 27, Devi is one of our younger selections, but that still makes her one of the oldest in her chosen career. Life expectancy for a mercenary is pretty low, but Devi is single-minded as well as ambitious, and refuses to be tempted by a promotion to safe but boring desk work – a choice that may sound familiar to specialists in many fields, where the options often seem to be management or stasis. Devi, though, uses her network of contacts to unlock a promising third route.

Wynne, in Playback Effect by Karen A. Wyle
Playback Effect is a near-future thriller that explores some fascinating social and technical possibilities, but it’s also – more unusually – the story of a marriage in trouble. Wynne and Hal have been together for years, and they’ve both grown complacent and careless in their relationship. It takes a crisis to push them beyond breaking point, until they start to pick up the shredded fragments of their love and patch it back together into something even stronger.

Tenar, in The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin
We first meet Tenar as a young teenager in The Tombs of Atuan, when she meets the hero Ged and he helps her escape from a life as a priestess of a sinister religion. By the time of The Other Wind she is an old woman, struggling to reconcile the simple farming life she has carefully built for herself with her notoriety in stories that are passing into myth. This view of an aging survivor of teenage adventures is really unusual in fantasy.

Rosemary, in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
We meet Rosemary as she flees aboard a cheap space flight, using forged papers to escape Earth and her past. Taking up a new job on a tunnelling ship, she’s introduced to a diverse crew of human and alien colleagues, with whose help she starts to rebuild her capacity for community, friendship, and trust.

Selene, in The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
Selene is the head of House Silverspires, the most powerful of the houses vying for control of Paris in the aftermath of a magical war. Having inherited her position from Morningstar, the first and strongest of the Fallen, she suffers from constant anxiety about her competence to fill his shoes. Yet, when a curse is unleashed and Silverspires teeters on the brink of destruction, it’s only Selene’s skilful management and shrewd politics that can save the house from ruin.

Ista, in Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Ista is a widowed grandmother in her forties when her own mother dies. Stifled by her mother’s castle and over-protective retainers, she decides to go on a pilgrimage, but she soon finds herself caught up in a political border war. When she starts to have prophetic dreams, she is no longer naive about what the gods might call her to do, but wracked with guilt about how she failed them in her youth. And even widowed grandmothers can find romance!

Selena Leonelli and Charlotte-Rose de la Force, in Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
Two out of the three storylines of Bitter Greens feature older women. Selena (the witch in the ‘Rapunzel’ story, and thus perhaps stretching the definition of ‘heroine’ a little!) worries about how she will support herself once she loses her beauty, and turns to drastic measures to keep looking youthful. And Charlotte-Rose is banished from the French court of Louis XIV in her early forties, and spends much of the book reflecting on her failed love affairs and the reality of spending the rest of her life imprisoned in a convent.

Ripka, in Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe
Ripka is captain of the city watch in the desert city of Aransa. She’s a thoroughly upstanding, law-abiding citizen, even when the laws are harsh… or so she thinks. When a murder is attributed to a doppel with illicit magical abilities, and an infamous rogue comes to her for help, what follows is a beautiful trajectory that sees Ripka grow to understand that law and ethics aren’t always aligned. The fact that even older characters can grow and change is often overlooked in fiction, and this is an excellent example.

6 thoughts on “Older Heroines in Speculative Fiction

  1. Thanks so much for including Wynne in your roundup of older spec fic heroines! I suspect you’d appreciate Dr. Mara Cadell of the Twin-Bred series, who is a pretty tough and game-changing broad. (Book One is permafree.)

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