It’s not exactly the most relatable content, murderous mothers. While we love the idea of the protective mother afire with rage protecting her children, there is a distinct discomfort that comes with stories where that rage is instead turned toward their family. We’d much rather look upon motherhood as pure and uncomplicated, all while being well aware that women, even mothers, can be as vindictive, diabolical, and abusive as anyone. But as much as we may insist the idea is unnatural, we fixate on stories of killer moms in real life and in fiction.
When I set out to write A River of Royal Blood, my biggest struggle at the outset was constructing a believable society where generations of queens forced their female heirs to prove their strength through sororicide, or die. These were women who had the power to change the laws of their country, but instead they let the system flourish. It came together when I realized this was an act to uphold a power structure where their descendants would remain at the top. And much can be rationalized when power is at stake.
In the duology’s conclusion, the story focuses less on the politics of the rival heir system, and more on the woman currently upholding it. In A Queen of Gilded Horns, Eva is being chased across the queendom by her mother’s soldiers. For the first time she and her sister, Isadore, are both far from their mother’s influence. While Eva fights to stay alive, Isa must confront the ways her mother’s thirst for power has shaped her. Nothing about the love between these three is simple.
In that spirit, I’ve chosen these five books where complex, toxic, and yes, murderific, maternal figures are brought to the fore.
Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore
Cashore’s fourth installment in the Graceling Realm series takes us across the sea to the republic of Winterkeep, where Lovisa, daughter of the island’s President, Ferla Cavenda, investigates just how far her parents are willing to go for more power. In one of the early scenes, Lovisa recalls the times her mother locked her for hours in a tower, as she rushes home from her boarding school to prevent her brothers from suffering the same punishment. Cashore’s stark depiction of the emotional torment and neglect Lovisa suffers shows how the powerful perpetuate cycles of abuse with little fear of consequence. Content warning: childhood abuse, neglect, and gaslighting.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
In Ifueko’s Raybearer, a mother raises her child to be her unwitting assassin. While reading, I got goosebumps at the first mention of The Lady’s sinister and eerily soothing presence. Tarisai, love-starved and raised in isolation in a magical house, longs for her mother’s visits. Yet it is clear the Lady cares for her daughter not as one loves a child, but as one cares for a tool, honing it with purpose. Though the Lady’s murderous intent is not focused on her daughter, there is no doubt that if Tarisai breaks from the Lady’s plan, things will not go well for her. Ifueko builds the dread the Lady inspires so deftly; you will be both entranced and fearful in equal measure.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Of course I had to include Mrs. Coulter, the ruthless socialite who adopts Lyra at the start of The Golden Compass, and whom I’ve long found terrifying. I believe it’s because this archetype feels almost too real. She is a horror we encounter in the real world—the magnanimous maternal figure, caring for so very many children, while all that faux kindness and generosity are used as a shield against accusations of abuse. In her first appearance at Jordan College, Mrs. Coulter’s sophistication and intelligence so impress Lyra that she is happy to go live with her. But once Lyra is under her care, Mrs. Coulter’s mask of trustworthiness and warmth begins to slip. The horror beneath may not completely shock readers, but Lyra’s loss of innocence is no less compelling for that fact. If you want a mother who’s going to haunt your dreams, it’s Mrs. Coulter.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
This modern classic following the star-crossed Laia and Elias Veturius is one of my favorites, a book I always return to for its perfect plot and its chilling villainess—the Commandant aka Veris Veturius, Elias’s ruthless and cruel mother. There seems to be no limit to her cruelty, as we witness her torturing a student to death and carving her initial into Laia’s skin as punishment for a minor mistake. The Commandant, well aware that her son hasn’t completely conformed to the Empire’s way of thinking, uses brutality as both a warning and a lesson on who he must become. Yet what I love the most about Ember is that Elias’s heart, instead of hardening to match his environment, softens in response. Elias dreams of a future that isn’t drenched in blood. Naturally the Commandant can’t allow that. Guarantee you won’t like Keris Veturius, but at the very least you’ve got to admire her commitment.
Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
This is definitely the most unique depiction of motherhood on this list, as the “mother” in question is a six-year-old girl, Minya, who in the wake of her godly parents’ death, learned to command several ghosts to raise her orphaned siblings. Few villains have enraged me and made my heart hurt with as much intensity as Minya. In this sequel to Strange the Dreamer, *spoiler alert* Sarai has become a ghost. Now trapped under Minya’s control as she plots revenge for the event that left them orphaned, Sarai must navigate layers of trauma between her siblings and the citizens of the city below. So much of this duology is about the waves of trauma that echo on for years. Minya is as capricious and cruel as the worst of children, but she is also a traumatized child who was forced into a role never meant for her. As a result, her mind and body have been stuck in a state of arrested development for more than a decade. Few authors can make me both hate a character and want to offer them the love they deserve. Taylor ensures you’ll never just feel one way about her characters.
Amanda Joy has an MFA from The New School, and lives in Chicago with her dog Luna. You can find her on twitter and Instagram at @amandajoywrites.