Sometimes, bad is good. Or, more accurately, interesting. Reluctant heroes, chosen one orphans, and brave princesses are all well and good—but sometimes a reader wants something darker, meatier in their characterizations.
Enter the Anti-Hero. Typically, an Anti-Hero is a story's central character, but who does not display traditional heroic attributes (like courage, selflessness, or righteous idealism)—in fact, often the Anti-Hero usually acts in their own self-interest and flies in the face of the ethical codes we are given in fiction. The Anti-Hero will cheat, or steal, or kill without too much remorse—think Batman, the Punisher, or Deadpool.
In YA fantasy fiction, a good Anti-Hero isn't easy to find. Overwhelmingly, YA SFF plays to the ethical high ground and central protagonists follow fairly straightforward rules: save the kingdom/world from evil, flirt with the uncrossable line of killing others for power but never actually do it (or if they do kill someone else it's because their hand was forced in some way that morally absolves them), and so on. Now, don't get me wrong—I love a great moral YA hero, and the idealism that she embodies in fiction. But sometimes, you need to read a character who sees an uncrossable morality line, and then decides to cross it anyway because they want that power.
Reading Julie C Dao’s Rise of the Empress books—and the contrast between Xifeng and Jade as protagonists—inspired me to think about what makes Anti-Heroes like Xifeng so much more interesting than their heroic counterparts (Jade). If you, like me, are interested in exploring some recent YA Anti-Heroes who cross that line, this list is for you.
Rise of the Empress Series by Julie C Dao. Comprising two novels (Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix), Dao’s Empress books are an east Asian reimagining of the Snow White fairytale. Instead of starting with the princess’s story and victimization at the hands of her evil stepmother, the first book in Dao’s series chronicles the life and rise of said evil stepmother, Xifeng. And readers, Xifeng is complex and dark and layered and sympathetic, and you watch in horror as she makes decision after decision, sacrifice after sacrifice, to embrace power and seize her own destiny as ruler of the seven realms. (Of course this comes at the cost of her own soul, but it's a brilliant, darkly beautiful thing to behold as she comes into her own serpentine power.)
In contrast, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is Jade’s book—the lost princess who grew up in a convent and is content to tend her garden and never involve herself in the palace or riches or machinations… Until she discovers that her people are dying and Xifeng may be poisoning her father. Jade is a great heroine, but her traditionally moral narrative is frankly boring and a let-down after the darkly fascinating rise of Xifeng—the series is still fantastic and beautifully written, but Xifeng is just so much more interesting than Jade.
Furyborn by Claire Legrand. This far, only the first novel in the Empirium trilogy has been published, although book 2 is out this month—and while it's not without its flaws (for example, the entirety of Elianna’s timeline), Furyborn has a particularly noteworthy Anti-Hero. Rielle is a young woman born with incredible magical skill—so much raw power that her father demands she hide it away and never speak of it after she accidentally kills her own mother. Rielle is forced into using her power to thwart an assassination attempt on her beloved, and in the process is revealed as a queen of the prophecy: but is she the one who will save the world from chaos, or the one who will plunge it into darkness?
Spoiler alert (from chapter 1, so not really a spoiler): she's the bad one.
The way Rielle had been raised, her intense desire to be loved by her people, the strangeness and distance she feels and then the magical kinship that is offered to her from an exiled angel, all of it places her on a dark, inevitable path towards destruction. The awesome part about Furyborn is that we see the direct results of Rielle’s power a thousand years into the future—the kingdom is devoid of magic and ruled by an ageless Emperor, and all you can think is how did any of this happen.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. One of my favorite reads of 2018 was this debut crossover novel from debut writer R.F. Kuang. Set in an alternate historical east Asian fantasy world and inspired by the Sino-Japanese Wars, The Poppy War follows a sturdy archetypal protagonist: the brilliant orphan, who wins her way into the top military academy in the entire kingdom based on test-taking merit. The Poppy War diverges from the archetypal Orphan Hero trope from the moment that Rin decides to follow the Dark Side of the force and become a shaman instead of a military strategist. Her journey involves taking opiates to unleash her power, and making deals with deities in order to access the type of magic she needs for her own bloody revenge. This book is WAY WAY DARK, friends. Do not embark on this particular journey unless you’re willing to endure the harrowing ride as Rin sacrifices, well, everything, in the name of power.
The Conqueror’s Saga by Kiersten White. It's not exaggeration when I say that Kiersten White owns my soul. And I Darken, Now I Rise, and Bright We Burn are soul-rendering books that pose a simple question: what would happen if Vlad Tepes was a woman? Beautifully researched and historically accurate, White’s saga follows Lada Dracul and her two companions, younger brother Radu, and their beloved childhood friend, Mehmet (who would become an Ottoman Emperor), over the course of their young, bloody lives. Lada is the pinnacle of Anti-Heroes—she is fierce and brutal and stubborn and so incredibly nuanced as a character. She hungers for more, but especially for her home Wallachia—a love that no one understands. Reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s obsession with Tara, Lada’s passion is what drives this series, her meteoric rise, and her inevitable fall. Not since Walter White have I felt this powerfully for an Anti-Hero—or for the other lives that the Anti-Hero’s touches. One word: RADU.
So there you have it! Have any other YA Anti-Heroes of note that should be added to the list?