Parents! Pesky narrative roadblocks when writing books centred on young people. Common, garden-variety parents want to make sure their offspring are healthy and happy, which is a problem for writers who want to send young protagonists off into danger. Authors can, of course, dispatch parents to a location too distant for them to interfere or simply kill them off—both very popular choices—but there is another alternative: Simply have the parents themselves (or their equivalent) be part of the problem.
The Silver Metal Lover (1981) by Tanith Lee
Tanith Lee was the queen of, among other things, vanished or dead parents. Of the forty-eight Tanith Lee novels I read in 2016, no less than forty-four had dead or missing mothers, and thirty-seven had dead or missing fathers. Parents who figure in Lee’s oeuvre would have been very poor insurance risks. But the orphans might have been the lucky ones, because Lee’s fictional parents could be downright monstrous.
In The Silver Metal Lover, for example Demeta wants a daughter who is timid, compliant, and (most important) less attractive than Demeta herself. To that end, Demeta does her best to turn her daughter Jane into a fashion accessory. Jane is forced into unflattering fashion and health choices, so that she can function as an ugly foil to lovely mom. It is no surprise when Jane eventually flees in the company of an attractive lover. It’s somewhat more surprising that Jane’s perfect man is an android. It’s downright tragic that the company that constructed him wants him back.
Flying in Place (1992) by Susan Palwick
Twelve-year-old Emma appears to be a normal girl from an unremarkable home. In reality, she is being sexually abused by her father. Her mother is unable to protect her and the authorities would never take the word of a young girl over that of a reputable surgeon. Escape appears impossible. There is just one person in all the world to whom Emma can turn: her older sister Ginny.
Ginny can offer Emma companionship and support, not to mention hope that Emma will eventually escape to a world beyond the house in which she’s trapped. What Ginny cannot do is intercede with the authorities, because Ginny died before Emma was born. If the cops won’t listen to an abused girl, they’ll certainly won’t pay attention to a ghost.
Roses and Rot (2016) by Kat Howard
The Fair Folk who founded the elite Melete artists’ colony are merciless predators. The potential cost of study at Melete: indentured servitude to the Fair Folk, if selected. By human standards, the Fairies are monsters. They are not the worst monsters in the novel, however. That honour falls to the parents of the young people who attend Melete, parents so dreadful that risking slavery to eldritch beings seems an attractive opportunity.
Imogen and Marin’s mother, for example, has no use for daughters who are confident or mutually supportive. She has done her best to crush Imogen and Marin’s confidence and to convince each girl that their sibling is their worst enemy. It’s a wasted effort because in the end, Marin is still willing to risk everything to save her sister from eternal servitude.
Dreadnought (2017) by April Daniels
Fifteen-year-old Danny, the latest bearer of the Dreadnaught powers, has been gifted with abilities ranging from combat skills to nigh invulnerability. She can be killed—she acquired her powers when the previous Dreadnaught died—but killing her won’t be easy.
But skin that can shrug off artillery rounds affords no protection against emotional abuse. Before Danny was Dreadnaught, she was a closeted teen hiding her transgender identity. When Danny became Dreadnaught, she morphed into the female body she had always known to be her true self. Her transphobic rage-monster father in no way supports this change. What Danny wants is immaterial. Her father wants a son. (There is a sequel, 2017’s Sovereign, in which Danny’s parents are even worse.)
Kakuriyo: Bed & Breakfast for Spirits (a manga published from 2015 onward) by Midori Yuma
Aoi Tsubaki didn’t have to endure abusive parents, as she was abandoned when she was very young. Her grandfather rescued her. He was a doting parental figure who could see supernatural beings, a gift that she shares. So far so good.
When the old man dies, Aoi discovers that her guardian was a compulsive gambler who has promised Aoi as security for his gaming debt. That’s bad enough; it’s worse that he ran up debts with an ayakashi, a supernatural being from a Hidden Realm. Poor Aoi is taken to the Realm and told she must marry the ogre who holds the debt!
Aoi is as ingenious as her grandfather when it comes to sidestepping inconvenient payment. She convinces her ogre groom to let her work off the debt by running an inn in the Hidden Realm. The ogre agrees. Why not? It’s not as if any ayakashi would purchase food from a mere human. Surely, his human bride will fail to repay the debt and be forced to marry him…
Not doubt you have your own not-so-fond memories of horrific parents in SFF. Feel free to mention them in the comments!
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.