From depression and trauma to borderline personality disorder, mental health concerns affect millions of people every day. As someone who battles depression and anxiety, I know all too well how they can impact daily life. Yet, where does mental health fit in a fantasy setting? How does a bipolar or obsessive compulsive protagonist fare while also encountering new planets, the magical, and the supernatural?
In recent years, there has been a steadily growing wealth of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror novels dealing with mental health, often resulting in powerful character arcs. There has been nothing more satisfying than to see a protagonist coping with mental illness becoming powerful enough to save themselves and the entire world. Here are just eight examples.
The Wintersong duology by S. Jae Jones
I’m a sucker for fairy tale retellings and was delighted to learn that the Wintersong duology was influenced by the 1986 film Labyrinth, German fairy tales, and the Erl-King myth, among other things. Wintersong tells the story of aspiring music composer Liesel, whose dreams are slipping away due to her duty to run her family’s inn and look after her sister Kathe. When her sister is kidnapped by the alluring and formidable Goblin King, she must undertake a perilous journey to save her by risking another thing she loves most: her music. There is some steamy romance, but it’s also a story of reclaiming your truest, most unbridled self. Liesel shows the symptoms of bipolar disorder in this book and it was wonderful to see her be loved and lusted after while she tries to recover everything that matters most to her.
The concluding sequel, Shadowsong, is much darker and introspective than its predecessor, but no less magical. Even though Liesel is back from the Underground, she can’t forget the Goblin King and things have changed for the worst. She and her violinist brother Josef are finally trying to follow their musical dreams, but they are distant. Not to mention, the barrier between aboveground and the underground is weakening. Throughout all this, her bi-polar disorder is out in full force, referred to in the book as “her madness” and drawing from the author’s own experiences. Now, Liesel must face her demons and discover the true origins of The Goblin King if she is to save herself and those she loves. By exploring bi-polar disorder through Liesel and depression and addiction through Josef, this book shows that you can manage your madness if you face it head on with help from your loved ones.
A Darkly Beating Heart Lindsay Smith
After a failed suicide attempt, teen Reiko is sent to her family in Japan to learn to get a handle on her emotions. Unexpectedly, she is sent to 19th century Japan while visiting the historic village of Kuramagi. In the 19th century, Reiko lives as Miyu, a young woman that gives Reiko’s anger and hate a run for her money. When Reiko discovers the secret of Kuramagi, she must come to terms with Miyu’s personal demons as well as her own. Reiko has anti-hero vibes about her, which piques my interest even more.
For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Helig
In the land of Chakrana, the Chakarans are made second class citizens after being invaded by the Aquitans from across the sea. Jetta and her family the Chantrays have learned to survive by performing shadow puppetry for their oppressors. Jetta’s shadow puppetry is particularly special because she infuses the shadows with the soul of the dead, but this must be kept secret. When Jetta and her family get the chance to travel to the Chakrana capital and go to Aquita, Jetta learns of a possible cure for her “malheur”, a stand-in for bi-polar disorder according to the author. Jetta must decide whether the cure is worth risking the secret of her shadow puppetry and her family’s livelihood. With a creative take on necromancy, searing anti-colonialism commentary, and vibrant world-building, this book is great for readers craving a new fantasy series.
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
It’s not hard to see how the horror genre can be used to explore mental illness by making the monsters in a person’s head come to life. Set in the fictional New Hyde Mental Institution, the novel begins with the main character, Pepper, being admitted in handcuffs for a 72-hour psych evaluation. On the first night, Pepper is attacked by a terrible creature. When other patients confirm that the creature is real and roams the halls at night, they must come together and face demons from within and without. While the main character has no mental illness, the other patients have ailments that range from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to obsessive compulsive disorder. The book also tackles the unfortunate reality that is a faulty mental healthcare system that turns its staff and lack of resources into something truly terrifying.
Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves
This gem of an urban fantasy book centers on Hanna, a biracial Black girl with bipolar disorder and the new girl in the town of Potero, Texas. She moved there wanting to be loved by her mother Rosalee, but receives coldness, and a deal: If she can stay in the town for two weeks without being weirded out, she can stay at her mother’s. From there, things get trippy and sensual as she starts seeing horrible creatures and becomes close to Wyatt, a young man with mysterious powers. This book tackles themes like death, mother-daughter relationships, power, acceptance, and more. I had to take my time reading this due to some of the triggering content, but the payoff was worth it.
Borderline by Mishell Baker
Millie, a double amputee and suicide attempt survivor with borderline personality disorder, is recruited to join a secret organization that monitors the traffic of mythical creatures to and from a parallel world. On top of that, this organization (known as The Arcadia Project) gives her a mission that involves finding a movie star that is part of the Seelie Court of fairies. Talk about glamorous on multiple levels! Borderline is the first book in an entire series revolving around Millie’s involvement with The Arcadia Project and her mental health struggles.
The Red Threads of Fortune by Neon Yang
This powerful novella is technically part two of the Tensorate novella series, but can also be read as a stand-alone. After the tragic death of her daughter, ex-prophet Mokoya Sanao has been hunting sky creatures—naga—in the wilds and keeping to herself, traumatized and suicidal. While on the trail of a particularly threatening naga, Mokoya meets another naga hunter, the bewitching Rider. As they learn more about their prey, the two of them discover a secret that threatens the land of the Protectorate and forces Mokoya to come to terms with her past and whether or not her powers as a prophet can change the future. The most moving thing about this novella is how grief, loss, and trauma affects the characters differently and how the characters recover by building healthy relationships through honesty and compassion.
Latonya Pennington is a Black Asian queer freelance pop culture critic. They have written for Strange Horizons, Solrad, and Black Sci-fi among many others. Their work can also be found on their website.