We all know her. We’ve been her. Everyone else gets an invitation to a party and you…don’t. After the initial sting of rejection wears off, you’re faced with a dilemma: Do you sit at home with a pint of ice cream (or something stronger) while you rage text your friends?
Or do you show up at the party, uninvited, and curse the host’s infant child?
We know which path the evil fairy in the Sleeping Beauty tale chooses. Her response—to curse the newborn princess to die on her sixteenth birthday—seems extreme. Impulsive, even. And if you examine the other well-known female fairytale villains, you may discover that almost all of their motives could be considered similarly vain or jealous or shallow. Male characters often get to pursue their desires with unchallenged abandon. But female characters—especially villains—tend to want something simpler. To be the fairest. To marry the prince. To steal the voice (or power) of another woman. Real motives—those that drive characters to commit irreversible and sometimes monstrous acts—are messier. And so much more interesting.
Malice, my debut novel, is a queer Sleeping Beauty retelling from the point of view of the villain. And I strove to make my version of the evil fairy, Alyce, different than her traditional counterpart. Her motives are not simple. Alyce can be selfish. Cunning. Sometimes ruthless. But she is also human—and perhaps more like ourselves than we might care to admit.
In the spirit of my villainous Alyce, I present for your enjoyment five SFF books starring female characters who complicate their storylines. Whose strength and independence earn them such nicknames as shrew and witch and a hundred others we’ve heard before—and they wear them like crowns. Five fictional women who are, unashamedly, wicked.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Novik’s fairytale and myth retelling follows Miryem, the daughter of a money-lender who is wildly ineffective at his job. Tired of watching her family starve because of her father’s poor performance, Miryem shrugs off the societal constraints for women in her village and gets to work. She’s shunned and despised—because she’s excellent at the family business. Eschewing any thought of a husband or other “womanly duties”, Miryem ignores the haters and lifts her family into prosperity. Loudly outspoken about her own business acumen, Miryem’s brazen attitude gets her tangled up with an ice-blooded fey creature and a merciless tsar. And soon she’s swept into a bargain that tests even her hardnosed skills. Put all your silver on Miryem, readers, because she’s not backing down.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso
A wicked woman doesn’t have to be a heartless one. Villoso’s epic fantasy features one of the most complex female protagonists I’ve encountered. Talyien is queen of Oren-Yaro. But the bitter warlords heading the clans of her realm hate her. Talyien is supposed to be a mere consort to her husband, but he abandons her in favor of exile, and Talyien insists that she be crowned alone. Her reign may be holding the nation together (by a thread), and protecting the rights of her son and heir, but civil war looms. With scant allies and the constant threat of assassination, Talyien must prove herself far more often than any man would have to do. When her husband sends Talyien a secret letter asking to meet, she agrees. But the journey proves rife with betrayals, political intrigue, and forbidden arts. Talyien’s husband expects a wife ready to cede to his whims. He gets a sword-wielding badass, bent on protecting her son and securing her rule—no matter the cost. And things get pricey.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
A feminist, alternate history of my dreams! It’s 1893, and witches used to hold power—until the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, when witches were overthrown and their magic was forbidden. In New Salem, women—with their wily words and ways—are subservient to men. Witchcraft is a crime punishable by burning, and official witch-hunters patrol the city—hungry to sniff out even a hint of magic. Enter the Eastwood women—June, Agnes, and Beatrice—who join with a group of suffragists ready to topple the patriarchy. But soon these women want more than the vote—they want to bring back the magic that was stolen from them. Branded as outcasts and criminals for their subversive beliefs, the Eastwood sisters must band together despite the old wounds threatening to tear them apart. And as the officials close in, the witchy trio will use any means necessary—including illegal spells, manipulation, betrayal, and even starting some fires of their own—to claim what’s theirs. I was rooting for these women to cause as much havoc as possible.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust
Soraya is a cursed princess locked in a palace. This might sound like the beginning of a familiar story, but Soraya is not waiting for her prince. There can be no lifting of her curse—a poison in her blood that renders her very touch fatal to living creatures. So when a demon who might hold the cure for Soraya’s condition is captured and held in the palace, Soraya decides it might be time to rescue herself. But the demon—and the mysterious boy Soraya meets along the way—provides more questions than answers. Like, what if Soraya’s “curse” is actually her greatest gift—one that would grant her the power she craves? And if she could be brave enough to reach for it, what would Soraya take? Get ready for some intense moral grayness. Even I wasn’t sure what Soraya would do next—or what I wanted her to do.
Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
Some of my favorite wicked women are those who try to be good. In the Prophet-ruled land of Bethel, Immanuelle is shunned for her late mother’s sins. Knowing that her very existence brings shame on her once-influential family, Immanuelle attempts to become the devout woman expected by her settlement. But she struggles to accept the suffocating limitations of that role. And when she finds herself in the forbidden Darkwood, among the spirits of the four powerful witches who were killed by the first Prophet, Immanuelle opens a door to her past that cannot be closed. Secrets about Bethel, the Prophet, and Immanuelle’s mother are revealed—illuminating a path for Immanuelle which she never dreamed possible, and unleashing a sinister power to stir the settlement. Immanuelle must choose—cling to the tenets of the Prophet and the life she’s known, or let the newfound darkness guide her to unfathomable power. I mean, I know which one I would choose.
Heather Walter has been telling stories for as long as she can remember. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with both English and Information Science degrees, books are–and always will be–a definitive part of her life. As an author, Heather loves writing about what-ifs, flawed protagonists, and re-imagined history. Her favorite characters are usually villains. When not writing, you can find her reading (duh), knitting, binging TV, and planning her next travel adventure.