Tue
Jan 29 2013 12:00pm

Sleeps With Monsters: Where Are the Older Women?

Sleeps With Monsters: Where Are the Older Women?

When you lay out the recent examples of older women in science fiction and fantasy, you find a decided lack.

Or at least I do. (Let me ’splain.)

By “older,” I mean women whose concerns are those of motherhood, middle age, old age: women who believe in their own mortality, who wear the weight of their pasts as well as their responsibilities to the future, who have a place in the world: a place that may or may not be comfortable, or suitable, but worn in around the edges and theirs. By in science fiction and fantasy I mean acting as protagonists, or as mentors whose importance to the narrative is not sidelined or minimised by relentless focus on the youthful angst of less mature characters.

I came up with a list. Lois McMaster Bujold leaps right to its head. Ista dy Chalion is the protagonist of Paladin of Souls, a book that had a profound affect on me when first I read it, and continues to affect me deeply even during rereads. A woman of forty, whose children are either dead or grown, whose husband died long ago, whose mother has only recently passed away, she has spent most of her adult life suffering the effects of a curse that led to her madness, and to her being thought mad and delicate still. Even though the curse was broken.

(The way in which the curse acted upon Ista is painfully familiar. Her grief may have been strange and at times extravagant, but she could see a danger to which others were blind, and her family and society’s refusal to believe her is strongly reminiscent of the operation of gaslighting.)

She’s a woman striving to move out beyond the roles others have appointed for her—or that long use has accustomed her to, herself—to discover who she is when she has the choice to act for herself, on her own account. It is a profoundly hopeful book, even in its darkest moments, for this narrative of agency not rediscovered, but reclaimed.

Bujold also gave us Cordelia Naismith, of course: a women mature in her life and advanced in her career, whose “shopping!” scene in Barrayar is iconic in its maximum deployment of Awesome in the minimum amount of space.

Count Piotr’s hand slapped down hard on the table. “Good God, woman, where have you been?” he cried furiously.

A morbid lunacy overtook her. She smiled fiercely at him, and held up the bag. “Shopping.”

For a second, the old man nearly believed her, conflicting expressions whiplashed over his face, astonished, disbelief, then anger as it penetrated he was being mocked.

“Want to see what I bought?” Cordelia continued, still floating. She yanked the bag’s top open, and rolled Vordarian’s head out across the table. Fortunately, it had ceased leaking some hours back. It stopped face up before him, lips grinning, drying eyes staring.

After Bujold, the next writer to use women of maturity as protagonists who comes to mind is Sir Terry Pratchett. Pratchett has his flaws, but the elderly buddy-act of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg steal every scene they’re in from the very moment of their first appearance together, in Wyrd Sisters. Granny and Nanny are caricatures of particular sorts of elderly women, of course—the woman who never married and is quite happy that way, thank you, mind your own business if you please, who aged into terrifying sternness; and the terrifyingly friendly old lady with what seems like millions of grandchildren, all of which she is prepared to talk about at the drop of a hat while giving advice on the best way to catch a man and make babies of your own, cackle cackle rude joke—but Pratchett’s particular genius is to take caricature and make character anyway. They’re heroic, in their own commonsense, no-nonsense, manipulative for your own good, proud, prickly, and interfering ways, sticking an oar in to get rid of annoyingly bad rulers, evil relatives, wicked elves, modern vampires, and so on. (And to thwart opera ghosts.)

And it’s always struck me as unbearably funny, and also apt, that the dwarf name for Granny Weatherwax is “Go Around The Other Side Of The Mountain!”

The third writer who comes to mind, mostly because I just finished a reread of her New Amsterdam collection, is Elizabeth Bear. A number of the “New Amsterdam” stories feature Abigail Irene Garrett, who ages from approximately her forties to very old indeed. The novelette Bone and Jewel Creatures, set in the same universe (albeit a different time) as Range of Ghosts, positions a very old sorcerer and her relationship with her (ex) lover and said ex-lover’s son in the central role. Carnival, Undertow, and the Jenny Casey trilogy all feature women with a significant amount of life behind them.

I’m deliberately excluding immortals and antagonists (especially needlessly wicked ones) from my criteria. Which narrows the list a good bit: apart from these three authors, I can think of very few others writing women of maturity. Perhaps some of Catherine Asaro’s characters may count, although part of my problem with enjoying romance storylines is that they seem to turn otherwise sensible adults into teenagers who forget every lesson about life they ever learned, and this does not appear congruent with depicting maturity. (Use your words, people. Clear communication is a social good.) I’m certain the forgetting-of-every-lesson happens to some people. But, still. Everyone?

Perhaps there are good portrayals of protagonisting mature women in SFF I haven’t read. Still, I’ve read what I imagine to be a representative sample of work published in the last fifteen years... and there’s a lack. Yep, definitely a lack.

Someone should maybe try rectifying that.


Find Liz Bourke on Twitter @hawkwing_lb.

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125 comments
Cecelia
1. Cecelia
Perhaps you're only looking for novel-length depictions, but Margo Lanagan had a mature woman (a grandmother!) as a main character in her short story "Crow and Caper, Caper and Crow" in the anthology Under My Hat. Agree though, these characters are too rare.
Cecelia
2. Lindsey M Sheehan
I'd like to put forward the Brenda and Effie series of supernatural cosy mysteries by Paul Magrs. Yes, Brenda is technically immortal, being the bride of Frankenstein, but she feels her age and lives as an older woman, and her best friend Effie is the genuine article. (I guess the ruling out of immortals was to avoid women who look and act young despite having lived a long time).
For reference:
http://www.goodreads.com/series/53961-brenda-effie-mystery
Cecelia
3. FJ
Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon is about an elderly woman who chooses to stay behind on a planet when a colony is closed. Much of the plot is based on "those in power/in charge" underestimating the ability of an older woman. Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula Le Guin includes stories about older women. But, yes, a definite lack. Lots of wise old women being pivotal to plot, but not as protagonists. We need a sci-fi Miss Marple!
Cecelia
4. Jarle
Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon obviously.

A truly great book as well.
Cecelia
5. Mary T.
"Bitter Angels" by Sarah Zettel writing as CL Anderson (2009). Great characterization of a woman who is obliged to return to her violent profession, over the objections of her grown children.
Cecelia
6. Jolie Mann
What about Cherie Priest's Boneshaker? Briar spends the whole book searching for her son. It's even published by Tor...
Cecelia
7. Virginia Herrick
I realize she was ahead of that 15-year timeline, but back in 1990, Ursula LeGuin published Tehanu, followed by The Other Wind. The protagonist is Tenar, middle-aged, grand-mother-aged, powerful and wise and moving forward against the unbearable cruelty and evil she encounters with courage. Fabulous, complex and real older woman.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
8. hoopmanjh
How about Signy Mallory in C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station? Or maybe Arianne Emory from Cyteen (although her situation is ... complicated)?
Cecelia
9. Mary T.
And "Ravenwood" and "Zypheria's Call" by Nathan Lowell.
Cecelia
10. helbel
I love Remnant Population, one of those books that after getting out of the library multiple times I had to go and buy.
Cecelia
11. RiverVox
I'm glad you mentioned Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey. She's the first one I thought of when I read the title of this post and I'm struggling to think of others. It occurs to me that in the mystery genre, this is not the case. There are many older female protags which might correspond with the writers and readers. Are market forces responsible here?
Brook Freeman
12. longstrider
Would Catelyn Stark in SoIaF count? I think she's on the younger side for must of the women you're talking about, but most of her concerns are the concerns of a mature woman, family power, protecting her children and husband, dealing with her husband's bastard etc. Also part of an ensamble cast so the protaganist call can be a bit hard to make.

Plenty of other adult woman in the series as well, though most of the others that leap to mind are fairly clearly on the antagonist side of things.

Honor Harrington ages into this catagory, she certainly isn't at the beginning of the series, but by the current books she's solidly in middle age (though that's a bit weird with prolong)
Cecelia
13. KMYatsuhashi
When submitting what will be my debut novel, I had an elderly woman as my protagonist. To a person, agents said it would never sell. My independant editor held firm as long as she could, but eventually said I should give in and age that character down. She stressed over and over again that she didn't agree with the agents' sentiment, particularly since the character was so likeable. The long and the short of it, once I made the change, I sold my MS. Looks like Hollywood isn't the only place that discriminates against older women. I should note that I love how WOT gets around that with the Aes Sedai. So much knowledge in such young looking women. Nice touch. After a while, you forget they're young-looking and accept the wisdom that only comes with age.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
14. hoopmanjh
Or, for that matter, C.J. Cherryh's Pyanfar Chanur who's a mother and captain of a starship whose crew includes her daughter?
Emmet O'Brien
15. EmmetAOBrien
Janet Kagan's Mirabile has an older professional woman as an active protagonist, and a nice balance between career and personal relationship focus that read very positive to me.
Cecelia
16. Paige M
I would think that Barbara Hambly's Winterlands series would fit the bill. Jenny, the protagonist, is 37 at the start, but in the world of the story, that's old -- and her feelings about being older, with children, etc., are a hugely important part of the series.
Cecelia
18. Lizzy50
How about Senneth in Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn. She's in her 30s and definitely has a past to go along with her present confidence in herself.
Mike Scott
19. drplokta
Nanny Ogg is as far as you can possibly get from "the woman who never married and is quite happy that way". She has had five husbands (three of whom she married), and is the matriarch of a vast extended family.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
20. EllenMCM
I love the "shopping" scene from Barrayar. Especially the next few lines of dialogue where she tells Aral she paid too much for it. So perfectly sad and funny at the same time - a textbook example of hysteria in exactly the right moment to show how everyone involved is both fully human and super-human at the same time.
Cecelia
21. AmandaJ
Yes, drplokta,

Nanny Ogg is "the terrifyingly friendly old lady with what seems like millions of grandchildren, all of which she is prepared to talk about at the drop of a hat while giving advice on the best way to catch a man and make babies of your own, cackle cackle rude joke"
Cecelia
22. a1ay
19: yeah, that bit is Granny Weatherwax.

Others: Ilia Volyova, I suppose - uncertain age, but definitely not young. Galadriel (who is 3000 or something). The genetic engineers Sri Hong-Owen and Avernus in Paul McAuley's "Quiet War" trilogy.
Shelly wb
23. shellywb
Elizabeth Moon's other books contain strong older women as well. Her Heris Serrano books for example, show an empire run in the background by the older women who are completely underestimated by everyone else. There are a number of them with important roles in the trilogy.
Angela Korra'ti
24. annathepiper
I'd like to put in a plug for Catherine Lundoff's Silver Moon as pertinent to this thread! The blurb on Goodreads is, quote:

"Becca Thornton, divorced, middle-aged, and recently out of the closet, discovers that life can still hold some strange surprises, when she discovers that her body is changing; menopause turns her into a werewolf. Apparently she is not the only one, as a number of women in her town of Wolf's Point seem to have had the same experience. As their newest member of the pack, Becca learns her nights are not spent only protecting the town and running through the woods howling at the moon. There are werewolf hunters in town and they've got Becca in their sights."
Cecelia
25. Catherine Lundoff
Thanks for the plug, Angela!

There is a list on Goodreads of books with female protagonists 40 and over - http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/22531.Speculative_fiction_heroines_who_are_40_

Carol Emschwiller and Eleanor Arnason are amongst the authors who have featured older female protagonists.
Cecelia
26. Jessica Strider
One of my favourite female characters from fantasy, after Ista, is Seri from Carol Berg's Bridge of D'Arnath series (book one is Son of Avonar). She's middle aged with a very depressing background and helps an amnesiac man she finds near her home. Her past makes her quite bitter regarding certain things, but also very intelligent with regards to how the world works.

Violette Malan's Dhulyn and Parno books feature a middle aged pair (man and woman, though they're mercenery partners and not a couple). They have some fun adventures in the books, with Dhulyn (the woman) being senior partner.

There are definitely not enough older women as protagonists though.
Cecelia
27. Lee Modesitt
Anna Marshall, the protagonist of my Spellsong Cycle, is clearly one of those "older" women.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Dave Thompson
28. DKT
Tobias Buckell's The Executioness, maybe?
Cecelia
30. Earl Rogers
Shannon Hale talked a bit about this on her blog...that when she began writing books featuring older protagonists who were mothers, wives, divorced, etc, she began seeing two responses cropping up:

1) What you're -really- saying is that you want all women to be mothers and married, aren't you? Well phooey on that!

2) Only young people can have adventures. You're basically dead by the time you break 35.
Cecelia
31. Earl Rogers
hoopmanjh= Hilfy is Pyanfar's niece. Pyanfar's biological daughter is estranged from her mother due to the vast cultural divide between Hani Spacers and planet dwellers. (Among other things.)
Cecelia
33. Lsana
I'd argue against Honor Harrington. While she's chronologically older than most of those listed here, due to prolong she's still a young woman. At least at the point I stopped reading the series, she was still being treated as the young heroine, despite being closer to 70 than 60.

Catelyn Stark would seem to make sense. Again, she isn't actually that old, but the concerns she deals with (comforting her dying father, watching her son become a King, considering past regrets and roads not taken) are those of a middle-aged woman. Cersei from the same series presents another view on the same issues, though calling Cersei a "protagonist" may be a bit of a stretch.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
34. hoopmanjh
Earl Rogers -- That's what I get for posting about a series I haven't revisited in 10 or 15 years. Thanks for the correction. (And the excuse to go back and refresh my memory.)
Helen Wright
35. arkessian
People writing older women that matter... disregarding totally the 15 year thing.

What? Nobody's mentioned Ilsidi in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series. Old, very dangerous, and very aware of her past and what she can yet achieve.

Also Janni Killian in Kristine Smith's Code of Conduct and sequels.

Also Shan Frankland in Karen Traviss's City of Pearl and sequels.

And Suzette Haydn Elgin's works if you want to go that far back.

Seconding Janet Kagan, Lois McMaster Bujold, Elizabeth Bear, Elizabeth Moon, and most of the rest of C.J. Cherryh's work.
Brook Freeman
36. longstrider
I'm thinking of Honor once she gives up commanding individual ships or even small squadrens. Once she has firmly moved into the political/social arena and has her post as a high admiral. After her marriage and the birth of their children. It's only the the last handful of books, prior to that I would have considered her a young woman.
Cecelia
37. John C. Bunnell
The Star Trek franchise has actually done not too badly in this regard: Drs. Beverly Crusher and Kate Pulaski are definitely of middle age, and so is Capt. Kathryn Janeway. (See also, on the literary side of that franchise, Diane Duane's Romulan character Ael in her "Rihannsu" cycle.)

There are also a few examples in Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" cycle: in the novel By the Sword, Tarma and Kethry function as mentors to the younger protagonist Kerowyn -- and later in the main series, Kerowyn herself evolves into a mentor figure. See also Savil, Vanyel's mentor in the "Last Herald-Mage" trilogy.
Rob Munnelly
38. RobMRobM
Add Hobb to the list, especially relative to Kenntricken in the Tawny Man series and several of the trading families from Bingtown and Rain Wilds.

Easily could add Wheel of Time, notably relative to Morgase, Moiraine, Tylin and Dyelin with their very different perspectives on life, success and love.
Cecelia
39. PhoenixFalls
Love this topic, love all the examples in the OP and will be checking out some of the recommendations in the comments.

One I haven't seen mentioned yet is Kij Johnson's Fudoki -- in it, an aging royal (the back of the book says Empress but I don't think that's right) is going through the process of shedding all her worldly belongings so she can take her final trip to die off the palace grounds, and is meanwhile writing a story about a cat who gets turned into a human. Of course, the jacket description focuses almost entirely on the cat's journey. . .

Her other novel, The Fox Woman, has a slightly younger but still distinctly middle aged female lead, and is about the dissolution of a marriage due in part to the husband's meeting with the titular fox woman.

I have to disagree with Lizzy50 @18 though -- Senneth may technically be in her 30s (maybe; I don't think this is established anywhere?) but she still reads like a young protagonist to me. Her journey is all about finding a family and an identity, building an adult life for herself. Plus in the prequel novella "Flame" (found in Quatrain), which is set directly before Mystic and Rider, she acts about 18, which irritated the heck out of me because I loved Senneth prior to reading that.
Cecelia
40. Megaduck
Janny Wurts Empire series. Mara of the Acoma starts as an 18 year old girl but ends as a 40 some odd woman with 3 children.
Cecelia
41. Laura Musich
Interesting suggestions; I'm looking forward to adding these to my reading stack!

Also, sorry to be obtuse, but what is the joke behind “Go Around The Other Side Of The Mountain!”? Seems like it must be rude, but I don't actually get it...
Constance Sublette
42. Zorra
Tanya Huff's Enchantment Emporium series has splendid older and elderly female characters -- though younger protagonists are foregrounded.

Love, C.
Ryan Britt
43. ryancbritt
Susan Calvin from I, Robot! She's the best! (Granted, she ages throughout the book, and it's not truly a novel, but still!)
Soon Lee
44. SoonLee
Laura Musich @41,

To sum up, encounters with Granny Weatherwax will result in you doing what she wants - typically something you hate even though it is "good for you". She's probably the ultimate embodiment of tough love (more the tough, less the love).
Laura Southcott
45. tallgrass
R. A. MacAvoy's Tea With the Black Dragon, about a middle-aged women whose daughter comes to mind - I actually read it because of Jo Walton's blog post about it here (sorry, can't find the link). And Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books have followed their protagonist from thirtysomething to fiftysomething so far.

Also, Tamora Pierce's Tortall novels do feature young protagonists, but I've always liked how their older characters are allowed to have love lives.
Cecelia
46. KeH
Other than the CJ Cherryh love, there are few others I can think of...

In Jennifer Robserson's later Sword-Bearer books, the dynamic protagonist pair face problems concerning their parenthood, and The Wild Road (Karavans #3) features a mother looking for a lost son.

I'd also argue for Toby Daye in Seanan McGuire's series -- she's long-lived, not quite immortal, but a couple of those books directly relate to Toby's identity as a mother and care-taker.

But it'd be very cool to see more! Especially now that YA has a distinct market space (when before books with teen protagonists might've been lumped together with adult genre).
Cecelia
47. Johnaz
The main protagonist ,the ex-priestess Maskelle, from Martha Wells' Wheel of the Infinite is 45 years old.
Estara Swanberg
48. Estara
Martha Wells' Wheel of the Infinite has a 40+ female poc protagonist in a non-European fantasy world and is awesome all around. She even gets a younger lover who doesn't
a) tell her what to do
b) have any problems with the fact she's far more powerful than he is
c) happily helps her with her schemes because she's the native and he's an outsider
http://thebooksmugglers.com/2012/04/bok-review-iwheel-of-the-infinitei-by-martha-wells.html

The dowager queen in her first novel The Element of Fire is also, like Ilisidi in the Foreigner books, a presence not to be trifled with.

Oh and so is Polgara in David Eddings Belgariad, etc.
Sarah Lester
49. slester
What about Avasarala from Caliban's War? She was pretty badass and a grandmother.
Cecelia
50. John R. Ellis
Several of Donna Jo Napoli's revisionist fairy tale retellings have featured older women as the protagonists. My favorite is the heart-breaking look at the truth about the Gingerbread Witch in The Magic Circle
Angela Korra'ti
51. annathepiper
Ooh, I just thought of another I want to add to this list. Patricia Briggs is way better known for her urban fantasy these days, but she does have her Raven duology, featuring a married couple with children as their lead characters. The books are Raven's Shadow and Raven's Strike.
Elizabeth Bear
52. matociquala
I see Janni Killian and Signy Mallory have already been mentioned. Signy Mallory was one of the big inspirations in writing Jenny Casey. I went "I want to write a character like that!"

The other immediate influence was John Varley's Cirocco Jones, from the Titan/Wizard/Demon series.
Sam
53. SJ
In case no one has mentioned her, there's Cass Neary in Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss and Available Dark. Maybe not strictly Fantasy - though with definite elements of it. A great portrayal of someone who seems to have reached middle age without knowing how it happened and is living with the consequences of some bad choices and failures.
Cecelia
55. Bart R. Leib
In May at WisCon, Crossed Genres Publications will be releasing WINTER WELL, an anthology of 4 novellas with older women MCs. This is exactly why!

http://crossedgenres.com/submissions/winter-well-speculative-novellas-of-older-women/
Cecelia
54. Pat Bowne
If it's not inappropriate to mention one's own work, I have a novel coming out sometime in the next year (hopefully) in which two of the protagonists are post-retirement-age women. It's called 'Swept and Garnished,' and will be released as an e-book by Double Dragon.
Fade Manley
56. fadeaccompli
It's a little depressing to me, how high a percentage of the recommended protagonists in this thread are...in their thirties. While motherhood is certainly one way to indicate not being a wee young whippersnapper anymore, I'm pretty sure that in a post about "older male protagonists" most of the suggested characters wouldn't be so young they'd pass without remark in grad school classes.

It's really emphasizing for me just how rigorous the Only Young Pretty Women Allowed rule is in genre fiction, if characters like Briar Wilkes and Toby Daye--both of whom I like quite well!--are being pointed to as "older" women.
Alan Brown
57. AlanBrown
I haven't read the work of the other two writers mentioned in the article, but have nothing but kudos for Bujold's work; and the mix of bravery and panic in that 'shopping' incident was among her finest work.
Another mature character in Bujold's work is the woman who Miles Vorkosigan finally falls in love with and marries. She is a housewife and mother, victim of an abusive spouse, who stands out among the exotic warrior women he had as romantic partners in his past. Yet she was a strong and brave character none the less, portrayed skillfully by Bujold.
One of my favorite older woman characters is from a short story from James H. Schmitz's tale "The Second Night of Summer," Granny Wannattel. The story is well worth seeking out, and has appeared in a number of anthologies over the years. In fact, when I was growing up in the 1960's, Schmitz's work was distinctive among the SF I read in how often it portrayed strong, capable women, who were defined by their own actions, not just by their reactions to something that men did.
In my own writing, I set out a couple of years ago to write a YA novel that recreated the boy's adventure stories that I grew up reading. But I also added in a mysterious religious order of ecological nuns, who then ended up nearly taking over the tale. You see, my favorite aunt was a nun herself, who spent her life in service, working in public works departments of Catholic hospitals. She was also an avid outdoorsman and fisherman, who loved cigars, beer and whiskey. And was brash and outspoken, especially on issues of social justice. And her sister, my mom, was a tireless worker, who said any day that didn't start with milking cows was an easy one. And who started a career from scratch in her late 40's when my father's health failed. With role models like that, how could I not find strong women appearing in my writing!
Cecelia
58. Jesse Pudewell
What about Karrin Murphy from the Dresden Files? And Isana from the Codex Alera? Mira from the Jesse James Dawson series? And who can forget Annalise from the Twenty Palaces? Although Beatrice is not a viewpoint character in the fairy tale princess books by Jim C. Hines, she fills the bill okay. Danielle from that series is a mother by book two.
Cecelia
59. Ginger
@fadeaccompli: Amen! The post pointed out women who were starting in their forties. Ista, one of my favorites, has had an entire career already, and is now starting over -- this time, paying attention to her own needs first. This resonates deeply for me, in a way that a book about an 18-yr old or 30-yr old just does not. Take those books -- suggested above, where the series ends with an older version of the protagonist -- and start them with the older women. Then let's talk!

It quite makes me want to run after Ista.
Cecelia
60. Jan the Alan Fan
Julian May's 'Saga of the Exiles' features some older women - Elizabeth Orme, who is a widowed teacher aged 45. Then there's Madame Guderian, who becomes a freedom fighter when she's 127 *.

* Rejuvenation exists in these books and M.G. has had two rounds of it.
Liz Bourke
61. hawkwing-lb
So many comments - wow, guys. You're going to have to forgive me for not taking each individually, but I do want to address a couple of things that've cropped up several times here.

A bunch of the characters whose names have come up are only maybe in their mid-to-late thirties. Priest's Briar Wilkes, in her thirties. I'm pretty sure Smith's Jani Killian is late thirties too. Shinn's Senneth, late thirties-just-turned-forty, but her storyline is one concerned with a kind of coming-of-age, finding a family. Malan's Dhulyn, late thirties. In the Wheel of Time, the older women are not protags or, apart from Moiraine and Siuan, even mentors with very much face-time. McGuire's Toby Day's a semi-immortal who presents as twenty-something, maybe thirty-something. Briggs' Seraph, although she has several children, is still in her late thirties-forty. Butcher's Karrin Murphy is not the protagonist or even Dresden's mentor: we never see her through her own eyes. Hines' Beatrice counts as a mentor, but Danielle is only a young mother, hardly an older woman.

I may be only a young thing yet, but I can't quite make myself believe that thirty-eight or thirty-nine or forty is all that old. (In the original post, I'm being a bit generous to even count Cordelia, really. But she reads as a character full of the self-knowledge and perspective of a mature woman, certain of her place in the world. So I account her one regardless of chronological age.)

Women who are central to their own stories, above the age of forty, are rather uncommon. Why is this? It's not like we won't all be septuagenarians someday, if we're lucky enough to live so long - and one can be seventy and still living a full and active - a vital - life, even in the days before modern medicine.

And it's not like SFF doesn't have a contingent of forty-plus male characters.

Okay, we can scare up a few more older women if we go back further than fifteen years. But Downbelow Station and Tea With The Black Dragon are from the 1980s. Mirabile is a 1992 book. Tehanu, in the UK edition at least, is also 1992.

I feel strongly that one should be able to name at least one book (not series) with a fortyish or forty-plus woman protag for every year in the last fifteen - and even with the recommendations of everyone here, we're a bit short of that, I think.

(Dear everyone: thank you for the recommendations, and do please keep sharing them.)
Cecelia
62. silence
A bit older then 15 years but the 'Powers That Be' trilogy by Anne Maccaffery had an older (retirement age) female protagonist.
Cecelia
63. iat
What about the women from Tiger Burning Bright by M. Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Mercedes Lackey? The Dowager Queen Adele and Queen Lydana.
Cecelia
64. a1ay
Also, sorry to be obtuse, but what is the joke behind “Go Around The
Other Side Of The Mountain!”? Seems like it must be rude, but I don't
actually get it...

In context it's quite obvious, actually: in the next sentence it's explained that the trolls call her "Oo'oogra'ahoa", or "She Who Must Be Avoided". (Which is, of course, a play on Rider Haggard's Ayesha, "She Who Must Be Obeyed").

I feel strongly that one should be able to name at least one book (not series) with a fortyish or forty-plus woman protag for every year in the last fifteen - and even with the recommendations of everyone here, we're a bit short of that, I think.

How does this stack up against books with older men as protagonists? You're allowed to be elderly if you're a mentor; not so much if you're a hero.
Amal El-Mohtar
65. amalmohtar
Taking hawkwing-lb's points (especially about wanting more recent examples), but nevertheless responding to this part of the original post:
I mean women whose concerns are those of motherhood, middle age, old age: women who believe in their own mortality, who wear the weight of their pasts as well as their responsibilities to the future, who have a place in the world: a place that may or may not be comfortable, or suitable, but worn in around the edges and theirs.
I can't believe 60+ comments have passed and no one's mentioned Terri Windling's The Wood Wife! Jo Walton reviewed it for Tor.com here. The main character is 40, has already been married, divorced, built a successful career from the book's beginning. She is a creative person in her own right who fosters the creativity of younger women in the novel. It's just fantastic.

Midori Snyder's The Innamorati also features multiple female protagonists, at least one of whom is a middle-aged mother. It plays with a lot of Commedia tropes, and is very aware of working in a tradition that favours the ingenue above all others.

I also vaguely remember there being a middle-aged woman in Peter S. Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song.
Cecelia
66. beerofthedark
A Shadow In Summer by Daniel Abraham, not only kicks off the Long Price Quartet (one of the absolute masterpieces of recent fantasy) but it also heavily features Amat, an old resourceful woman, who is arguably the main protagonist of the story.
Stefan Mitev
67. Bergmaniac
Mae, the main character in Geoff Ryman's Air, is middle aged (I can't recall her exact age, but it was over 40 for sure), with grown up children and fits all the other criteria perfectly too.

Excellent topic, BTW. The almost total lack of these type of characters is one of my issues with most of SFF.

It's a shame Bujold didn't write more Cordelia centered books. Miles is great, but Cordelia is a better character for my money.
Cecelia
68. Clarentine
Seconding (thirding?) the mention of R.A. MacAvoy's Tea with the Black Dragon - and if you liked Martha, the protag, see if you can locate the sequel, Twisting the Rope. As extra encouragement (in response to A1Ay @ 64), I'd note that in both of these novels, the second protag is an elderly man, Long. These are definitely mature characters with appropriate concerns.
Cecelia
69. James Davis Nicoll
You know, older female protagonists are not uncommon over in F&SF's cousin genre mystery ("gave up a big city career to move to a small town where they opened a shop, met a new guy to replace the one they divorced/were widowed by, adopted/fostered a kid and discovered a knack for revealing killers*" alone describes half a dozen series). I'm guessing the perceived demographics of the readership plays a role here (although if that were true, I'd expect more middle aged women in fantasy than in SF).

* Nobody ever just steals stuff anymore.
Cecelia
70. Just another Jason
Thursday Next! Starts in her mid 30's, she is now in her fifties in the most recent book. Still able to kick ass with the best of them, now while managing a threeish child family (it makes sense in the books).
Cecelia
71. OtterB
Jo Walton's Lifelode. The main character, Taveth, is married with children and her concerns are those of a householder. It's a quiet kind of story and I suppose some people might find it dull, but I thoroughly enjoy it.

Not recent, but Molly Grue in The Last Unicorn responds to the appearance of the unicorn by telling her, "Where were you twenty years ago? How dare you come to me now?"
Cecelia
72. Greg Benford
Hazel Stone in Heinlein's THE ROLLING STONES
Mari Ness
73. MariCats
A post on Roald Dahl's The Witches, where one of the major characters is a grandmother, is coming up in a couple of weeks, though I suspect I'll be focusing less on her character and more on the many, many, many other issues with that book.

I was planning on adding The Wood Wife to this list but I see someone already got there.
Mari Ness
74. MariCats
A post on Roald Dahl's The Witches, where one of the major characters is a grandmother, is coming up in a couple of weeks, though I suspect I'll be focusing less on her character and more on the many, many, many other issues with that book.

I was planning on adding The Wood Wife to this list but I see someone already got there.
Cecelia
75. la.donna.pietra
Moreta (from Anne McCaffrey's Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern) is in her early 40s and has an adult son. Granted, I paid more attention to the part where she has a hot younger lover who thinks she's dead sexy because she's older and experienced.
Cecelia
76. James Davis Nicoll
a hot younger lover who thinks she's dead sexy because she's older and experienced.

Has sudden flashback to my 90+ yr old grandmother's funeral, during which I met her hunky 50-60ish boyfriend, of whose existance I had previously been completely unaware. Nice guy, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't a conversation I was expecting to have.
Cecelia
77. JS Canada
Marge Piercy has a number of books that should fit this description.

Maybe more fantasy than SF, but I really liked Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff:
http://shewolf-manchester.blogspot.com/2012/09/review-catherine-lundoff-silver-moon.html
Cecelia
78. Jaime L Moyer
I think there are a few diffierent factors that play into people naming women characters that are in their mid to late 30s and thinking of them as "older". If you're 20, or even 25, being 40 is at times inconceivable. A woman who is 35 is old(er).

The cult of youth in the Western world extends into SF&F novels for one thing. How difficult it is for readers here to name women protages over 40 is very telling. I suspect that's because there aren't many. Youth sells in books just as it does in movies, TV or any other form of media.

It's still not "acceptable" in many people's minds for women protags to age, to have the concerns of caring for and protecting children, to lose that head turning beauty that fades with youth, or to think about the changes to their bodies that come with aging. The friendships with other women that are so important to most of us are rarely written about. Fiction is life writ large, but not when it comes to women.

I wish I understood completely why this is true. Women buy more books and read more than men, but the male viewpoint and the male ideal of what makes a good, marketable protag still dominates in so many ways.

Readers who want books that focus on older women need to speak up. Writers need to write them. I'd really like to see that happen.
Cecelia
79. James Davis Nicoll
It's still not "acceptable" in many people's minds for women protags to age, to have the concerns of caring for and protecting children, to lose that head turning beauty that fades with youth, or to think about the changes to their bodies that come with aging.

See also Real Life:

One of the many barbs tossed at Mary Beard that she has the temerity to a mid-50ish woman who looks like a mid-50ish woman:

Beard, one of the country's foremost classicists, has never been particularly interested in her appearance, preferring to concentrate on what she thinks and how best to communicate it. Her long hair is left unashamedly grey and her face bears the marks of her life.

And this, in itself, is a form of attractiveness. For many women, she is something of a hero: a refreshing presence in a television industry dominated by endless youth and cookie-cutter beauty.

But this means she is no stranger to name-calling. When Beard presented the BBC2 series Meet the Romans last year, the television critic AA Gill wrote that she should be "kept away from the cameras altogether" and was "this far from being the subject of a Channel 4 dating documentary" (thought to be a reference to The Undateables, a controversial series on that channel about people with disabilities trying to find love).

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/26/mary-beard-question-time-internet-trolls
Cecelia
80. anewname
Something from 2012! Caliban's war, by James S.A. Corey (psuedonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Big fat doorstopper with three main protags, one of whom is a grandmother-aged woman of colour (East Indian? Sri Lankan? -- read the book a while ago). Chrisjen Avasarala is a UN diplomat -- the power behind the throne and a major player in the action. Bonus: one of the two other protags is a female space marine. And yes, the two do meet, and don't talk about men!
Cecelia
81. James Davis Nicoll
Wasn't one of the complications in The Lies of Loch Lamora that the little old lady one of the patsies knew happened to be the head of the very secret secret police? Or am I confusing it with a different book?
Lisa Grabenstetter
82. magneticcrow
Olive Wellwood from A.S. Byatt's 'The Children's Book'? It's more of a pseudo-magial realism, and I think it generally gets shelved in Fiction, but the stories by Olive woven throughout the book/blurred with the plot are undeniably fantasy. Though the book talks a lot about her children and extended family, she's the central protagonist and a very active and interesting character who ages throughout.
Cecelia
83. Ceitie
The main character of Eric Flint's "Mother of Demons", Indira Toledo the historian, is thirtiesh-fortiesh when the book begins, and so probably in her fifties by the main action in the middle and end of the book.
Beau Williamson
84. BeauW
The first one to jump to mind (not already mentioned) is 'Fairy Tale' by Alice Thomas Ellis, which I guess is on the more literary side of fantasy, but a rather compelling read. And then, "The Fires of Bride" by Ellen Galford, again more literary. Both really good books that have older women as deep protagonists.
Cecelia
85. harmonyfb
I don't know how old the protagonist is supposed to be, but Cora
Ogelsby from Lee Collins' The Dead of Winter reads as though she's in her 40's. (Also: Westerns with vampires will never get old.)
Travis Butler
86. tbutler
The protagonist of Pat Wrede's Caught in Crystal might not technically qualify on age, but I think the personality/situation fits: used to be the leader of a hotshot troubleshooting group for a magical Sisterhood, retired after the disastrous outcome of their last mission; now widowed with two children and the owner of an inn. Her old Sisterhood is calling on her to join an expedition investigating the aftermath of that mission, and she's by no means sure she wants to go... and has to look back on how she fit into the Sisterhood, then and now, and the role she used to play. Comes across as a very middle-aged perspective to me.
Pernilla Leijonhufvud
87. Therru
In the tie-in Doctor Who audio dramas from Big Finish (as well as a couple of novels), one of the Sixth Doctor's companions is a woman called Evelyn Smythe, who is a professor of history and 55 years old when she begins travelling with the Doctor. A refreshing change from all the young and pretty ones that keep cropping up in the TV series.
Grainne McGuire
88. helen79
The first thing that sprang to my mind were some of Sheri S Tepper's books. Many of her books have older women characters. It's one thing I have always liked in her books.

For example, within the 15 year timeframe you have the Margarets (one Margaret is a grandmother), the Fresco (Benita, 2 children and a no-good husband) and just beyond the 15 years you have Gibbons Decline and Fall where all the main characters (more or less) are late 50s/60s women.
Cecelia
89. threeoutside
fadeaccompli (#56): I remember when I was around 35 - 40, picking up a Playboy out of curiosity at the magazine stand because it boasted a spread of Older Women. I was bemused to find that Playboy considered a woman of 30 to be an Older Woman. Then I reconsidered its target demographic, and of course understood.

But I hardly think it's trivial for this vast genre of SF/F - whose very timelessness, boundary-less qualities make it so rich - keeps those insulting boundaries of age in place for female characters. There is (this is not news) a deep vein of anti-woman sentiment in our culture and in the genre as well. It is NOT trivial either in its strength nor its malevolent effects.

I started out trying to write a list of these receommended books but quickly gave up - I'll just save the web page and draw my To Reads from that. Thanks for the topic and all the info, everyone!
Cecelia
90. Giselle
Older heroines are few and far between in my experience, to the point that I'm writing my own.

I've been carrying on a Marvel Cinematic Universe role-play game via chat for over a year and a half, and my main character has evolved from rookie agent to retiring as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D (after having been married, raised two kids, had an affair, survived an interstellar war and getting rather violently divorced), and is currently raising a half-goddess foster child. (I'll be 40 in a couple of months, and - with some major differences - I see her psychological evolution as somewhat paralleling my own.)

The next arc will see her coming out of retirement to command a privateer ship either in near-Earth orbit or within the atmosphere (my partner and I are still planning this segment)

Age? Mandatory. Grow old? Optional. Grow up? AHAHAHAHAHAHA no.
Cecelia
91. Mtroyalguy
I am sure this will be less than helpful, but there was a series (three for sure) about an librarian in her 40s that finds her power after her father passes away. She finds a box from her mother that leads to her power that apparently didnt find her earlier because she identified by the diminutive of her name and not her full name. I beleive the titles usually have "Time" in them, perhaps one was "Out of Time"? I am not at home and cant check my shelves for title/author.
Pamela Lloyd
92. Pema
I agree with Paige M that Barbara Hambly's Winterland series has an older female protagonist, but so do many of her other novels. For example, her character Starhawk, first introduced in The Ladies of Mandrigyn, is an aging female mercenary. Along with her simply excellent writing, Hambly's decision to write about older characters has been one of the things I've really appreciated about her work.
Cecelia
93. Sarah B.
Catherynne M. Valente's, The Orphan's Tales: In The Night Garden had a few older women sprinkled throughout.
Cecelia
94. Sabrina Vourvoulias
Attended a panel at Arisia recently that was trying to address just this. It was a bit irritating actually, because the (mostly younger) audience members were talking about "elderly" 50- and 60-year-olds, and praising the older women characters that are out there (scant, scant!) by saying they were X years old but act 20 years younger. So even the language we use in describing older characters is tainted by youth bias.

In addition, most of the older woman characters I've read in SFF fall into a few roles: wise woman, judge or tradition keeper, loremaster, and as of late, aging-but-undiminished asskicker. Fine, but ... not exactly the range we expect in younger women characters.

I'm going to get on my soapbox for a moment and say that the most irritating thing aside from limited range of roles, is the fact that older women characters are never envisioned as sexual beings. It's a puzzlement (all I can think is these older women characters are being written by younger writers who don't want to have to imagine that their mothers or grandmothers might still be having sex). I haven't read all of the works cited in the post or in comments section, so perhaps you can tell me if that observation holds true in those older women characters.
Cecelia
95. Suzanne
Not pure fantasy, but Diana Gabaldon´s Outlander-series has a wonderful main character in Claire. She is 27 in the first book, but due to complications of the timetravelling kind, we fastforward 20 years from book 3 (I think). She is an experienced woman of 50+ in the latest books, and actually gets to have a rich sexlife still (with her wonderful husband Jamie, also 50+).
Cecelia
96. Lucia
Naomi Novik has at least one active character in her forties or fifties -- Jane Roland, who has a daughter, a dragon and an Admiralcy to her name. She is one of my favourite characters in fiction for the way she behaves, her beliefs and character.

The problem with reading comments at Tor is having to add a zillion new books to my to-read list. Argh, my bank account.
Cecelia
97. OtterB
@94 re lack of sexuality in older female characters - not true of the Martha Wells books mentioned upthread (Maskelle, protagonist of The Wheel of the Infinite, and Queen Ravenna, a major secondary character in The Element of Fire, both have lovers) Or, for that matter, of Wells's current Raksura which has a matriarchal species with several powerful queens as characters - but since those are nonhuman, I'm not altogether sure they fit.
Lola Peets
98. IdioticGenius
Polgara from the Belgariad, Malloreon, and Polgara The Sorceress, is a character that may fall into this category. Sure she is immortal, with the face and figure of a woman centuries younger than she really is, but I know that when I was reading the books, I thought she looked rather like a 50+ woman. It wasn't until Garion finally said, "Aunt Pol, you're really pretty" to make me see her as anything other than an older woman. And still I thought of her less in term of her age and more in terms of her experience. It wasn't until I read Polgara The Sorceress that I finally saw her as a young woman -- and that is because she is one! Perhaps Polgara doesn't belong in this list, but I don't think she belongs with the younger woman. After raising 3 centuries worth of children, watching them grow up and get old and die, Polgara is a force to be reckoned with. Her apperance doesn't matter any more.
Cecelia
99. SueQ
Robert Heinlein's 'To Sail Beyond The Sunset' from 1987 has Maureen: from teen to very mature age she does pretty much everything (and everyone), has kids, husbands, boyfriends, etc.
Cecelia
100. bejeweledcat
Angela Katt from Gini Koch's Alien Series (ooo, published by Tor :-)
. While she is a supporting character not the centerpeice character, she definately helps shape the story. She's my role model for the next phase of my life!

I'm glad to see McCaffrey mentioned quite a bit. She has written quite a few main characters who are older as in Powers that be as well as following characters as they age as in Crystalsinger. All of her books offer great older women scattered throughout the stories.
Melissa Spray
101. meowwl
There's also Anne Mccaffrey's Killashandra from her Crystal Singer series, most of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's books, and Holly Lisle's Arhel series, and lets not forget the many novels of Jane Yolen....The women may not always be the focal protagonists, but they are indubitably main characters.
Cecelia
102. Nailah
I'm glad to see mention of the Lady Polgara who was certainly the first 'older female' I thought of. I read and re-read the Belgariad many times during my teen years. My father used to laugh at me for talking about 'Aunt Pol' as though she were a real person, and I definitely use some of her techniques for dealing with my own teens!
Brian R
103. Mayhem
I want to second Lee @27 on the spellsong series - Anna is very much an older woman with a grown child as the series starts, although she has less of her own issues to deal with as more political and economic issues.

Modesitt also has Sylvia ferro-Maine from the ecolitan books who is a seasoned political agent and former assassin who firmly expects to go through life on her own terms, regardless of what others may think.
Cecelia
104. T Mystique
Coming out of lurkerdom...This is a gap that I have noticed in SFF for awhile. I imagine that I will never stop reading this genre and its depressing to think that I will endlessly be reading about heroines in the 20s and 30s ( Im in my 30s now).

I want to second some of the rare jewels that have created vivid older heroines.

Someone upstream mentioned Lynn Abbey's Time series about a middle aged librarian who discovers a secret power that she has for dreamwalking/astral projection. There was a nice romantic subplot developing and so I was pretty bummed when the series was never finished. It sucks being forever in suspense ( did she end up with Blaise or not???!). Emma was a flawed but likeable character ( the best kind) and I still want to know what happened to her.

I also want to second Martha Wells Wheel of the Infite, Janet Kagans Mirabile and Bujolds Chalion series for creating memorable older women. Also thanks to whomever reminded me about Moreta. I feel a reread coming on.

I wish more authors would write these characters. I have always looked forward to getting older and becoming one of those fearless old ladies who doesnt care anymore and says whats on her mind and acts the way she pleases. I have had many old ladies like that in my life and they are so much fun to be around. That type of fearless woman seems like she would be wonderful fodder for a SFF story. Can someone write a character like that pretty pretty please?
Cecelia
105. KateB
How about Princess of Wands by John Ringo? Barbara has a family, is in her 30s and fights demons. In Queen of Wands, she has her world turned upside down and keeps going. While she might not be "middle-aged", she is a mature woman who knows herself and is secure in her faith while understanding that others may have a different and valid way of working.
Alan Brown
106. AlanBrown
I thoroughly enjoyed a book a few years ago called Wasteland of Flint by Thomas Harlan. The heroine was a middle-aged female archaeologist, very well portrayed. Well worth seeking out and reading.
And the character of River Song who appeared in a number of Doctor Who episodes in recent years was certainly more mature than most of the companions he shared the Tardis with in the past--although some aspects of her character were problematic if you are looking for a positive role model.
Cecelia
107. Wathira
From what I've heard of Neil Gaiman's forthcoming book The Ocean at the End of the Lane features a house with three generations of women. Although the plot seems to focus on the youngest, the one chapter I've heard him read gives the two older women plenty of dialogue, too. Hopefully the inclusion of older women continues in other sf/f works, especially since he's already worked with Terry Pratchett, another influential writer you've mentioned.
Cecelia
108. FollowYourMuse
For a more recent book, The following came to mind , though only one book, The Way of Kings is out so far in his new series, The Stormlight Archive. Brandon Sanderson's charachter Navani Kholin, is a widow, intellegent and has grown children. I think her story will be one to watch as it evolves in the books.
Cecelia
109. MarcL
Glad to see someone mention Bitter Angels. Even after it won the Philip K. Dick Award, it still goes unread.
Geoffrey Dow
110. ed-rex
I definitely think mention should be made of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. The main female protagonists there - Nadia, Anne and Maya - start out middle-aged and get very old indeed by series' end.
Brian R
111. Mayhem
Hmm, didn't the three sequels to Rama (that may or may not exist depending on opinion) have an older woman as one of the main characters?
Cecelia
112. Catherine Evleshin
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy includes among its major characters, several women who start out in their forties and age to nearly 200 before the end. They are sexual, struggle with age issues, and hold their own in the Martian communities.
Nancy Lebovitz
113. NancyLebovitz
I'm going to mention an early one because having an old woman as the power behind the story (though not the protagonist) was a shock to me: Sturgeon's "Granny Doesn't Knit". I suspect I'd find some tiresome stereotyping if I reread it, but it was interesting that the men were groomed for power in a way that completely controlled their minds, so that only women could break the system.

I didn't like the Susan Calvin part of the robot stories-- there was so much emphasis about how emotionally pathetic she was.

Again not a main character, but I liked the Reverend Mother in Dune as an archetype even if I didn't like a bunch of the details-- the old, ill-dressed woman with a lot of power. Unfortunately, the Bene Gesserit were devoting themselves to breeding a drastically improved sort of man because women were intrinsically incapable of the power they were looking for.

Taveth in Lifelode has a sex life.

I'd also be interested in a discussion of older male protagonists in sf. Offhand, I can't think of any. I wouldn't count Lazarus Long. Aging doesn't mean the same thing for him that it does for the rest of us.
Cecelia
114. Naraoia
Add in my vote for Daniel Abraham's Long Price books. Amat Kyaan rocks. Liat also shows up as a mature woman later in the story, although I can't actually remember what she *does*, so maybe I shouldn't be listing her :]
Cecelia
115. Rainphase
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, one of the best novels every written (part Arthurian legend, part fantasy, part historical fiction), has the characters, of Viviane, a middle-aged woman, and Morgaine, who ages from child to old woman throughout the story
Cecelia
116. pete mack
Missing the forest for the trees. The primary target of F/SF is young(er) readers. So the article shouldn't be looking for older female protagonists: it should be looking for older protagonists,male and female both.
Liz Bourke
117. hawkwing-lb
pete mack @116:

Defend your thesis that the primary target of SFF is young(er) readers, if you please.
Cecelia
118. JulietS
I have to cite Elizabeth Moon's Remnant Population again, since it only appeared at the beginning of the thread. When I saw the title of this piece I was sure that it had to have Remnant Population as the prime example. I was deeply moved by the book because it was the first F/SF book I read that was entirely about an older woman, particularly one who wasn't one of the stereotypes. She's not a kick-ass type, nor a wise-woman, and she doesn't have any special powers. She's not Queen or leader, isn't involved in politics and doesn't have a partner. She's a woman nearing the end of life, not someone in her 40's. As I recall, the book is told entirely from her view-point.
Cecelia
119. bejeweledcat
Oops my bad, Gini Koch's Alien series is with DAW, not Tor . . . same parent company though.
Cecelia
120. Thomas Harlan
To expand on Alan Brown's comment above, the Time of the Sixth Sun series (also published,hmmm... by Tor) feaures a middle-aged woman with three children and far too many troubles and responsibilities to recount here. Wastland of Flint in the first volume.

The second book adds a grandmother-aged gardener who is key; and the third book adds a grandmother-aged space captain who is even more key to events. I never said they had children, though. Too much else going on to get into that!

The first two covers, by the way, are not exactly accurate depictions of Gretchen...
Cecelia
121. AO
Michelle West's The Sun Sword series.

One of the greatest Epic Fantasies ever, this is an ensemble that includes at least 7 women over 40 (off the top of my head) in various roles. While none of these is a "main" character, all are important, make far more than "token" appearances, and not just as traditional "wise women" either. Children are also very important to a fair number of the characters in the story.

West is THE greatest character writer that I have ever read in this genre and it boggles my mind that more people are not familiar with her work. Perhaps the fact that she's a non-American (Canadian) writer of Asian descent is a factor in why she's not better known or perhaps it's not? I don't know, but I know that everyone here who has not yet sampled her work owes it to themselves to do so.
W Neilson
122. Relic
I'm a bit late to the party, but I wanted to add Commander Rallya, from Helen S. Wright's A Matter of Oaths (I think it was actually a recommendation by Jo Walton here at Tor.com that first introduced me to this book). She's a strong character whose position as an equal is not just accepted, but taken for granted by her male colleagues, even as she (and they) are having to come to terms with the physical fact of her aging. Though prejudice certainly still exists in the universe that Wright has crafted, it exists along different axes than this world, and that makes it a universe that I've enjoyed returning to every time I've read it.

And, short story, but I think Neil Gaiman's Chivalry bears a mention here, for the character of Mrs. Whitaker, and what it says about the intersections of aging, youth and culture more generally.
Cecelia
123. Amaryllis
More than a bit late, but I don't think anyone's mentioned The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson. The protagonist, Calamity, is a fity-something menopausal woman-- menopause is something of a plot point-- a mother and grandmother, and a sexual being. The book is more "magic realism" than SF, and there are no grand, heroic adventures in it. And Calamity isn't always likeable; some of her attitudes are quite UN-likeable, in fact. But she's always interesting, as a narrator. And while she's not a hero on the scale of Ista dy Chalion, in some ways her situation reminds me of Ista's. She's a woman "of a certain age" who got stuck in a restrictive set of attitudes and relationships, and by the end of the book she's beginning to get herself unstuck again.
Walter Underwood
124. wunder
The main character of The Interior Life by Katherine Blake (Dorothy Heydt) is a mom, and busy cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her kids when she's not fighting evil in Demouria. See Jo Walton's review: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/01/saving-both-worlds-katherine-blake-dorothy-heydts-lemgthe-interior-lifelemg
Cecelia
126. kb_run
Besides the old woman in "Remnant Population", Elizabeth Moon wrote about Herris Serrano, who's in her mid-to-late thirties in the novel, "Hunting Party".
Cecelia
127. Liffguard
Chrisjen Avasarala from Caliban's War is probably a good example. She's an elderly woman. A foul-mouthed, no-nonsense beureaucrat with a well-developed career and a lot of political power. Her story arc is largely concerned with scheming, plotting and sometimes brow-beating in order to prevent a horribly destructive war.
Cecelia
128. Adelaide Blair
I have always been partial to Starhawk in Barbara Hambly's Sun Wolf and Starhawk books. She's an experienced mercenary who realizes that the life she has been living is not all it's cracked up to be. She is contemplative and not afraid to look at things critically. (One thing I really like about this series is how it looks at the mercenary tropes and presents them as a less than ideal lifestyle. You know - rape and pillage might not be as much fun for those n middle age.)

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