Good guys are traditionally the ones who come to the rescue and save the day, but more and more—in both film and fiction novels—we’re seeing the opposite. Villains and criminals who decide to put their evil quests and troubled morals to the side, and fight for a bigger cause.
These villains show us the best and worst sides of ourselves: the fact that we can make mistakes, be selfish, take wrong turns and fail to get everything right the first time. But they also show us that one bad decision—or even a series of bad decisions—doesn’t define us. That it’s never too late to change, make amends and learn from our mistakes.
For a long time in fiction, especially fantasy, heroes and heroines were portrayed as perfect, who could master the sword in a day and save a kingdom while never messing up their hair or getting irritated at how everything just kept going wrong. And so I grew up thinking that the ideal and, perhaps even the normal, was to always make the selfless choice, to always put others first and to never pause and consider why.
It was only as I got older and delved into darker stories—twisted re-imaginings of fairytales, or magical worlds with crooks taking the hero’s helm against all odds—that I started to question what the idea of ‘perfection’ was. And why it was so wrong to put my own dreams and desires first. I started to realise that one mistake didn’t make me a bad person and that, actually, those mistakes made me better: they shaped who I became and helped me to learn and grow.
Besides, who doesn’t love a group of ragtag group of misfits teaming up to save the world, when they’re normally so good at destroying it?
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
Lila lives in the real world, where she has to steal to survive. And Kell lives in a world of parallel Londons, where he is one of the last magic-wielders who can travel between them. Lila is a thief. Kell is a smuggler. And when the Londons start falling apart, they have to work together to stop the threads of magic from unravelling.
Now, I have a soft spot for Kell BUT… oh, Lila. The queen of thieves and snarky pirates.
Lila makes her living as a pick pocket in book one of this magical series (what? That’s a good pun!), and then she’s thrust into a world of different Londons and a boy with a strange, ever-changing coat, and a battle for magic and the safety of the world. And she takes it in her stride.
Lila longs for adventure, thirsts for the magic, and though she’s used to looking out for number one, when the world’s on the line, Lila has her knives at the ready.
Legend by Marie Lu
“Brave thoughts, but am I ready to follow through on them?”
This book is a legend (HAH) of dystopia. Set in a world where the US is now the Republic and pretty much always at war, it follows: June (a wealthy military prodigy) and Day (a kid from the slums who just so happens to be the most wanted criminal in the country).
They’re not destined to meet and they’re certainly not destined to change the world together. Until June’s brother is killed and suddenly the fingers all point to Day, who just wants to find a cure for the plague and his family. But now the perfect soldier is out for blood, until she realises that she’s hunting the wrong prey and there are terrible secrets that the Republic she was groomed to serve may be hiding.
June and Day are both deadly, snarky and motivated by their families (either to save or avenge them!). While June is at the top of her class, Day has managed to give the government the slip forever, so when these two finally come together and military tactics are combined with street smarts, the corrupt forces around them better watch out!
Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody
“Sometimes we’re not who we want to be because we’re supposed to be something else.”
This book takes place in the City of Sin, and that should really tell you everything. In the City of Sin, gangs rule the streets and casinos rule everything else.
Enne Salta might have been raised to do what’s right and watch her reputation, but then her mother goes missing and she leaves behind her finishing school and everything she’s ever known to find out why. And on her way, she finds Levi Glaisyer, who is not exactly the kind of guy who lives on the right side of the law.
What he is, is a totally bad-ass bisexual gang leader and con man, who will steal your heart. And probably your wallet too. And he has the best influence on Enne, who begins as a bit of a pompous proper young lady, and then soon turns into a total bad-arse who does what it takes to survive. Including trawling casinos and dealing with ruthless gangsters.
If I could have anyone watching my back, it’d be Levi, Enne and The Irons.
The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell
“The only rule that counted was to not get caught.”
Gangs! New York! Magic! Someone get me a Manhattan.
Set in 1902, this book follows Esta, who is a magical thief that steals artefacts from a group called the Order. She toes the line between good and bad because, yes, she travels through time to rob people, but the Order is bad news and she’s fighting against them.
So basically she’s the epitome of morally grey.
Esta travels back to 1900s New York to join a gang on a heist (and meets magician Harte Darrigan! – Yes he deserves an exclamation mark) and discovers a plot more sinister than she bargained for. And so, it turns out, she might have to start thinking of a way to save all of her magical kind from being destroyed. But if I was a Mageus, I’d rest easy knowing that Esta and Harte had my back.
Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller
“I live on the cusp of two worlds, trying desperately to fit into one.”
Look, my debut was about a murderous siren and a pirate prince, so there’s no way I’m not putting a swashbuckling book on here!
Alosa, pirate captain, is sent to retrieve an ancient map and she’s willing to put her life on the line to get it, because the job and the treasure is what counts.
Alosa is the pirate warrior of dreams and I would call her the female Jack Sparrow, except she’s too busy kicking arse to bother with rum. Raised by the Pirate King, she’s not exactly well-versed in showing mercy to her enemies, and she has no problem putting her life on the line to get to the treasure.
Though soon she realises some things are more important: like protecting the people closest to her and putting the good of the sea above the gold. Combine that with some killer banter, and Alosa is the girl you want on your team when the world’s ending.
Originally published in October 2019.
Alexandra Christo decided to write books when she was four and her teacher told her she couldn’t be a fairy. When she’s not busy making up stories, she can be found organizing food crawls over London and binge-watching Korean dramas. Alexandra has a BA in Creative Writing and currently lives in England with an abundance of cacti (because they’re the only plants she can keep alive). She is also the author of To Kill a Kingdom.