- Dorothy Dunnett's Chronicles of Lymond feature Sybilla Crawford, Dowager Baroness Culter, a whip-smart woman who's raised two sons of dramatically differing temperaments. She scintillates, a class by herself in a series noted for schemers, wise-crackers, and brilliant wits.
- While young Chosen One Paul Atreides is the ostensible hero of Frank Herbert's Dune, I've always been more impressed by his mother Jessica: rebel sorceress, political manipulator, a forbidding yet kind mother and brilliant teacher to her son. Jessica stands out in my canon of literary mothers as a mother who is not reduced to her motherhood. She has political and personal ambitions independent of her son, and is portrayed as an emotional and sexual being even as she's shown to be an excellent mom.
- On the monster-mom end of the scale, the nymph Thetis in Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles is portrayed as a sort of ultimate Tiger Mother, driving her son to what she sees as his destined godhood and immortality. The true brilliance of Thetis's character, in my opinion, is the way her motivations and character are slowly revealed throughout the story. Initially unknowable, the ultimate Dark Mother, the book's protagonist slowly comes to understand Thetis, and Thetis to understand him. Aaaand I'll stop here for fear of spoilers—the book's only been out in the States for a year after all!
- We meet Daily Alice Drinkwater, of John Crowley's phenomenal Little, Big, as a young woman about to marry, and follow her through childbirth, motherhood, and the eventual assumption of matriarchal authority over the Drinkwater clan. Her story is just one facet of the larger Tale (capitals intentional), but a phenomenal aspect nonetheless, and it's impossible for me to imagine Little, Big without her.
- Cordelia Naismith, in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, is the ultimate Action Mom. Position filled. No others need apply. While she is only the focus of the first two Vorkosigan books (Shards of Honor and Barrayar, omnibussed by Baen as Cordelia's Honor), her adventures there cast a long shadow over the entire series, and literally change the galaxy.
Assembling this list, I found it interesting how often mothers are absent or dead, in genre fiction especially. I wonder how much of that has its basis in the historical past, where childbirth was much riskier than it is today, and how much arises from cultural bias against talking about motherhood, or if I'm even making that impression up. (Though I don't think I am!) What do you think? Or, alternatively: what mothers would you put on this list?