Welcome to Special Needs in Strange Worlds, a column focusing on celebrating disabilities in SFF. This column will focus on book reviews, author interviews, and guest posts to highlight the beauty and importance of our flaws.
The other day I was finishing up The Assassini Trilogy by Jon Courtenay Grimwood when I ran across this quote from from Duke Marco in The Exiled Blade:
“You learn so m-much as an idiot. People t-talk in front of you. They s-scheme, p-plan, p-plot and lust. After a while you become invisible.” (p. 58)
This quote made me look at the trilogy differently. Duke Marco, also known as Marco the Simple throughout most of the series, was known for being, well, simple. He suffered an illness as a child, and overcame it, but lost his wits in the process. He was a Duke in name alone, but to the world, he was mentally handicapped and basically useless. Without going into detail, Marco starts to show the world how intelligent he truly is, despite his obvious setbacks. He uses the world’s perception of his disability to his advantage, turning it from a weakness into a very powerful strength.
However, it’s not just Marco that is disabled. The book is peppered with disabilities. Tycho is disabled, though not in a way most people would associate with disability. Tycho is afraid of the sunlight, and when he gets truly angry, he turns into something terrifying. His is so limited by his fear that his life is almost completely defined by it. Yet, in the face of all his paranoia, he still manages to accomplish the incredible.
Giulietta is another disabled character in these books. She has some true mental demons due to horrendous happenings in The Fallen Blade. While she largely overcomes them by the end of the series, Giulietta is a mentally broken woman with scars that will never fully heal.
The point of all of this isn’t to say that The Assassini Trilogy has the best disabled characters ever, but it’s to show that disabilities are sprinkled throughout speculative fiction, and are far more common than many of us realize. Disabilities fall on a sliding scale, some more severe than others, but many characters we read about are limited by some mental or physical condition. Some of these conditions are temporary, but many of them are permanent. How the author realistically deals with these limitations is what makes them realistic.
Miserere by Teresa Frohock is full of disabled characters, each of them different and unique. Yet Frohock somehow manages to make them all realistic despite their disabilities. For example, Lucian Negru has an injured leg that pains him and causes him to limp. Frohock ensures that readers are aware of his condition, but she also shows how Lucian would compensate for his bum leg. Despite his handicap, he is still a strong, memorable protagonist and Frohock’s accurate treatment of his limitation goes a long way toward making him an incredibly strong character that readers respect and relate to.
The word ‘disability’ means a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. With that definition in mind, it’s a quick jump to realize that there are myriads of characters in books we’ve all read that are disabled. Often times, we just don’t realize it.
The interesting thing about disabilities in fiction is that they are everywhere, but for some reason we never talk about them. These characters are all strong despite their limitations, not because of them. Their limitations help them find strengths in other areas, like Duke Marco did. The world thought he was simple for so long, but no one really looked at him long enough to realize how intelligent he truly was. He used his limitations to his benefit and became an intellectual powerhouse while no one was watching. Tycho is so strong, fast, and fierce he’s feared by nearly everyone, despite the fact that he’s terrified of daylight and the water that surrounds the city. Giulietta’s mental and emotional scars just make her even more loyal to those she loves. Lucian is a fierce and capable protector, despite his bad leg.
Disabilities aren’t always obvious. In Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht, Liam is dyslexic. When I talked to Leicht about this, she was rather surprised that I picked up on that fact. In The Emperor’s Blade by Mazarkis Williams, readers aren’t ever quite sure if Sarmin is mad or not. In Wide Open and Deep Down by Deborah Coates, Hallie obviously struggles with some PTSD. None of Blake Charlton’s books would exist without dyslexia. Oree Shoth from The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is blind. Most of Dan Wells’ books deal with mental disorders in one form or another. The list could go on. The point is that disabilities are far more prevalent in fiction than most people seem to think. Why there is so much radio silence regarding this issue is beyond me. This is nothing to be quiet about or ashamed of. Disabilities are humanizing and empowering, they tap into the reader’s emotions and make us care. Disabilities come a multitude of different types and span the gamut from subtle to strong.
When we look for disabilities in literature, we tend to focus on the stronger, more obvious ones, the physical and mental maladies that are incredibly limiting and fairly obvious. The truth is, there are disabilities everywhere, most of them are just subtler and less limiting than we expect. Many disabilities hide in plain sight, or are overlooked, though their impact on literature, characters, and plots is marked. It’s time to celebrate disabilities, all disabilities, and their place in literature. None of the books I’ve listed in this article would have been as incredible, or as memorable as they were without them. It is time to shed the light on disabilities, and celebrate them, even the unexpected, overlooked ones. They bring strength to characters, and empowerment to the readers, and are far more common in the books we read than any of us seem to realize.