Let’s talk villains.
Yes, I know, there have been other lists about villains before. But I want to talk about a very special sort of villain. The kind whose motivation isn’t greed or lust for power, jealousy or spite. I want to talk about my favorite kind of villain, the one who is doing this whole bad guy routine for the best of reasons. The villains who might not object to being called villains but will absolutely defend their actions as necessary. No, really. They could have been heroes, if only they’d been a little less willing to sacrifice every life but their own. They are, at least to me, relatable in a way so many other villains aren’t. It’s easy to say that I would never do a bad thing, but if the fate of the whole world was at stake…?
Arkady Martine once perfectly described these fiends as “slick, charismatic manipulative hyper-competent sociopaths with species level ethics and no other ethics to speak of.” I love them. Yes, they’re absolutely trying to save the country/world/universe—they’re just also willing to do some thoroughly objectionable things on the way. From Thanos and his finger-snap to Ozymandius’s plan to save the human race from itself (finished before the monologue, thank you) every single one of these villains has ‘the ends justifies the means’ embroidered on a pillow somewhere.
So here are my five favorite books with villains (who are trying to save the world):
Cardinal Richelieu, Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers
Having been first introduced to this swashbuckling story via movies like the 1993 version starring Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt, and Chris O’Donnell, I was more than a little shocked the first time I read the book. Dumas makes it bluntly clear that Richelieu’s main motivation is a strong desire to do what he thinks is best for France, not exactly the carpet-chewing ambition I’d so often seen in the movies (you know I love you, Tim Curry, but…) He doesn’t necessarily hold a grudge either (indeed, he’s the one who suggests to the king that Louis really should just go ahead and make that D’Artagnan kid a musketeer.) Unfortunately, there’s a lot of wiggle room in ‘what is best for France’ and Richelieu takes it to ruthless extremes. Sure, his feud with the Queen does stem from her unwillingness to sleep with him, but is he really wrong to point out that just maybe her having an affair with an English Duke is even more ill-advised? To my mind, he will always be the quintessential mastermind villain willing to make the ‘hard decisions’ that others can’t or won’t. (I’ll admit my own Relos Var and Senera owe more than a passing nod to Richelieu and his favorite ‘problem-solver’ Milady DeWinter.)
The Lady, Glen Cook’s The Black Company
Glen Cook’s Black Company books have made it on to so many of my lists that I’m starting to think I should just permanently save him a spot. Anyway, these books are rather famous for being able to throw a stone and randomly hit a villain, while heroes are much harder to find. Yet among those many, many villains, the Lady seems like the worst of the worst as she’s so fond of steam-rolling over entire nations and psychically enslaving her enemies. That is, until you learn that everything she’s done has been to keep her immortal, nearly all-powerful husband (charmingly named ‘the Dominator’) from escaping back out into the world. Which isn’t to say that the Lady doesn’t do some terrible things (again, psychic-slavery, mass-murder,) just that her husband might well destroy the universe if he ever escapes.
Ariane Emory, CJ Cherryh’s the Cyteen Series
You might be tempted to think that Ariane Emory can’t possibly be the villain of the Cyteen series since she is, after all, slain at the start of the first book. Yet even after Dr. Ariane Emory’s murder, the geneticist’s ruthless and cynical touch continues to shape and meddle with the lives of everyone who lives in her shadow—including her clone, who is being groomed to carry on her legacy. Sure, you can argue that a murder victim hardly qualifies to be a villain, but Ariane Emory doesn’t care about your ‘rules.’ It’s scant comfort to the lives of those affected by her that her obsession with ‘legacy’ and creating a clone who is her mental as well as genetic duplicate is tied to the belief that she holds to key to humanity’s survival in the galaxy. Or that, as the scientist in charge of the psychological programming of the azi, the genetically engineered clones who form a slave caste for the society, she might be right. (There’s a tie-in between this book and a number of Cherryh’s other scifi works, but probably most notable is the Hugo-winning Forty Thousand in Gehenna, where–surprise!–it’s the descendants of Emory’s programmed azi clones who fair best.)
Gerald Tarrant, CS Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy
While I suppose one might argue Gerald Tarrant more specifically falls into the category of anti-villain (see Shuos Jedao, below) he’s still starts off the series as a cold-blooded sociopath who sacrificed his entire family to make sure he lived long enough to save humanity. (Unfortunately for him, a side effect of his bargain meant that after making that particular sacrifice he had no interest in saving humanity. Woops.) Gerald is charming, honorable, sarcastic, devastatingly handsome…but did I mention he’s a vampire who feeds off the fear of his victims? (Who are usually young women, by the way.) He’s spent the last eight hundred or so years as a serial killer and general terrible person—but for really good reasons, so uh…that makes it okay…? (No, Gerald, it really doesn’t.)
Shuos Mikodez/Shuos Jedao/Nirai Kujen, Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee
I know Yoon Ha Lee loves the same sort of villains I do, because he gave me three of them to choose from. First, we have Shuos Mikodez, the charming and thoroughly debauched genius who runs the intelligence branch of the empire. Then there’s Nirai Kujen, who has warped the empire into a banquet of atrocities in his quest to create a post-scarcity universe. And of course villain/hero Jedao, who can (and does) do almost anything to stop Nirai Kujen. ‘Acceptable losses’ start to take on a whole new dimension when the populations of entire planets fall within that definition. Jedao and Mikodez are both arguably anti-heroes/anti-villains, but Kujen’s label is far less open for debate. Kujen leaves a trail of devastation through the lives of trillions—and all for reasons he thinks are entirely justified. No child will go hungry on his watch, but millions will die the most gruesome of deaths to support the hierarchical calendar that makes interstellar travel possible.
Basically, give me a bad guy who wants to do the right thing the wrong way any day of the week. These five books (or series, in a few cases) aren’t just good examples of the trope, they’re books that I’ve come back to and read again and again. Which only proves, I suppose, that a story is always made better by having an amazing villain.
Jenn Lyons lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, three cats, and a nearly infinite number of opinions on anything from mythology to the correct way to make a martini. Her debut epic fantasy The Ruin of Kings is available from Tor Books; its sequel The Name of All Things publishes October 29th.