I’m still doing the whole holiday thing, but check it out, another rambling Top 5 Wednesday post! Celebrate! This week’s topic: favorite villains.
Fair warning, I’m not going to list the five best villains I’ve ever read, because saying “this villain was awesome” five times over might get a wee bit dull. Instead, I’m going to present to you five different types of villains/antagonists that I’ve loved, and that maybe you’ll love too.
Nikolaos: Terrifyingly Evil Villain
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
Oh hey look, it’s Guilty Pleasures yet again. (This book is, uh, aptly named.)
In a world where vampires, zombies and werewolves have been declared legal citizens of the United States, Anita Blake is an “animator” – a profession that involves raising the dead for mourning relatives. But Anita is also known as a fearsome hunter of criminal vampires, and she’s often employed to investigate cases that are far too much for conventional police. But as Anita gains the attention of the vampire masters of her hometown of St Louis, she also risks revealing an intriguing secret about herself – the source of her unusual strength and power.
This book contains a slew of scary and memorable antagonists, but one of my favorites is Nikolaos, the cruel, ancient, super-powerful, (female) vampire Master of the City. Quick, how do you imagine her? Maybe tall and slender, with long black hair and bright red lips tugged in a permanent sneer? Probably dressed in something tight and sexy?
Ha ha, NOPE.
Nikolaos is a beautiful little girl resplendent in frilly dresses and a smile to break your heart. Until she goes all terrifying creature of the apocalypse on you, anyway. This book isn’t going to be winning any literary awards, but holy crap has Nikolaos burrowed herself quite comfortably into my nightmares.
Ms. Scarlett Epistola: YA Villain Parody
Awoken by Serra Elinsen
In his house at R’lyeh, great Cthulhu lies dreaming…of her.
What would you do if you discovered you were the only one in the world with the hidden power to keep it from utter annihilation?
What if you had no idea what that power might even be?
Andromeda Slate, the self-proclaimed most ordinary girl in America, can’t figure out why the gorgeous but mysterious new boy at high school seems to hate her so much. It couldn’t have anything to do with the strange dream she had the night before he first showed up in class, could it? The dream where the very same boy rescued her from a giant, green, tentacled sea monster?
And it couldn’t have anything to do with that time she read aloud from that ancient tome of eldritch magic, the Necronomicon…could it?
Andi Slate never imagined she’d find herself in a situation where somehow she was the key to saving the world.
Her life is about to get a whole lot less ordinary.
Here’s a snarky shout-out to all the terrible, one-dimensional YA villains out there. The villains who’re evil for the sake of evil; who exist only as a perfect foil for the perfect protagonist; who have no personality or goals or life beyond their evil schemes; who are, not uncommonly, painfully misogynistic.
Ms. Scarlett Epistola (get it? get it?) is the grossly seductive substitute teacher whose
key only attributes are (a) her boobs, (b) her air of “a woman scorned” (which the book, hilariously, intentionally never explains what the hell even means), and (c) her need to initiate the destruction of the universe.
Like all of you guys, I’ve waded through YA’s sea of one-note villains; seeing that character tenderly mocked filled my little heart with joy.
The Rapist, and Vivienne’s Self-Loathing: External vs. Internal Villains
Asking for It by Lilah Pace
TRIGGER WARNING: BRIEF DISCUSSION OF RAPE AHEAD
Okay, this is where I kind of go off the deep end, and start equating “villain” with regular ol’ “antagonist.”
Aside from the mid- to late- Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter books (which, in my humble opinion, are awful), Asking for It is the only erotica I’ve read to date. Sexy-sexy books just aren’t my thing. But this book’s underlying conflict—a rape victim struggling to come to terms with the fact that her sexual fantasies revolve around rape—sounded powerful and intriguing, and I needed to know how well it’d be handled. (The answer: very well. At least, it seems to be from my perspective, as someone who has never been in Vivienne’s position.)
“This is who I am. This is what I want. Now I need a man dangerous enough to give it to me.”
Graduate student Vivienne Charles is afraid of her own desires—ashamed to admit that she fantasizes about being taken by force, by a man who will claim her completely and without mercy. When the magnetic, mysterious Jonah Marks learns her secret, he makes an offer that stuns her: they will remain near-strangers to each other, and meet in secret so that he can fulfill her fantasy.
Their arrangement is twisted. The sex is incredible. And—despite their attempts to stay apart—soon their emotions are bound together as tightly as the rope around Vivienne’s wrists. But the secrets in their pasts threaten to turn their affair even darker…
Reader Advisory: Asking for It deals explicitly with fantasies of non-consensual sex. Readers sensitive to portrayals of non-consensual sex should be advised.
First of all, I can’t praise this book enough for its portrayal of a (for the most part) healthy BDSM relationship. Vivienne and Jonah talk their sex scenes (desires, reservations, hard limits, etc.) out in advance, they respect each other’s boundaries, they don’t skip the after-care. Their relationship isn’t 100% perfect because neither person is perfect—each has their own painful stories that they don’t want to share (but really should), and their relationship snags due to failure to communicate properly—but these issues were realistic and well-handled, and overall, I couldn’t be more pleased. And heck yes for Vivienne and her regular visits to a therapist.
But this post is about
There are two real antagonists in this book: yes, there’s Vivienne’s rapist, who lurks inescapable in the background of her life, but the more immediate antagonist is Vivienne’s self-loathing, which stands inescapable in the forefront of her own mind. She’s appalled by her own desires, and terrified of what they mean about her—What kind of fucked-up rape victim can only get off by fantasizing about rape? she wonders. And even as her relationship with Jonah deepens, even as she finds comfort and security and pleasure like she’s never experienced in her life, she struggles with this fear and disgust.
She does, eventually, with the assistance and support of both her therapist and Jonah, begin to accept that she’s not an awful, fucked-up person; that she has nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to fear from her own desires. Watching Vivienne slowly begin to shed her self-loathing (and only begin to; she doesn’t undergo a total 180) makes for excellent reading.
I rarely find books that focus on the protagonist as their own antagonist, and I need more asap. This internalized villain-who-isn’t-a-villain is fascinating when written thoughtfully.
(And yes, the-rapist-as-villain is also addressed in the book, and is as powerfully done as Vivienne’s internal conflict. Just FYI.)
Misogyny: A Cultural Villain
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
Yes, fine, I just wanted to show off this gorgeous leather-bound edition of Dragonflight my husband recently gave me. Look at it. Tell me how jealous you are.
HOW CAN ONE GIRL SAVE AN ENTIRE WORLD?
To the nobles who live in Benden Weyr, Lessa is nothing but a ragged kitchen girl. For most of her life she has survived by serving those who betrayed her father and took over his lands. Now the time has come for Lessa to shed her disguise—and take back her stolen birthright.
But everything changes when she meets a queen dragon. The bond they share will be deep and last forever. It will protect them when, for the first time in centuries, Lessa’s world is threatened by Thread, an evil substance that falls like rain and destroys everything it touches. Dragons and their Riders once protected the planet from Thread, but there are very few of them left these days. Now brave Lessa must risk her life, and the life of her beloved dragon, to save her beautiful world. . . .
Let me give you some story background first, in case you haven’t read this series.
When the story begins, the life-destroying Thread that has rained down upon the planet since time immemorial hasn’t been seen for centuries, and the dragons who used to defend against Thread have mostly died off; now, only one dragon Weyr (read: extinct volcano remodelled into cavernous dragon homes) remains, and it stands mostly empty. Its sole, dying queen dragon—the only type of dragon capable of laying fertile eggs—has laid her last clutch, which contains, thank god, one precious queen egg. Upon hatching, that infant queen must immediately create a soul-bond with a human girl, and eventually repopulate the Weyrs in preparation for Thread’s return.
Enter Lessa, living in what used to be her noble family’s house, far from the dragon Weyr. After a long childhood spent scheming and festering with rage, Lessa is inches away from reclaiming her family’s stolen lands from the evil Lord Fax—and then dashing young dragonrider F’lar comes a-knocking, sees her, and recognizes that she has that je-ne-sais-quoi necessary to bond with the infant dragon queen.
“Hey, girl,” F’lar says, “why do you want to be Lady of this crumbling dump when you can rule the entire planet from the back of a mighty queen dragon? Dragons are matriarchal, you know; queens rule everyone. You’d have so much more power in the Weyr, I can’t even tell you.” Lessa spits on him, then reconsiders, and says, “Sure, okay, sign me up for all the power.”
Sure enough, Lessa bonds with the young queen, and thus becomes Weyrwoman—only to discover that, although the dragons are matriarchal, the uptight asshole dudes of the Weyr are very patriarchal, and are led not by the Weyrwoman and her queen, but by the Weyrleader, the man whose dragon last mated with the queen. Unfortunately for Lessa, the current Weyrleader will remain in power until her young queen reaches maturity and mates for the first time.
And the current Weyrleader, along with all of his cronies, is a misogynistic bastard. “Listen up, queen dragons are rare and precious,” he tells Lessa, “so go back inside like a good girl, and don’t bother your head with too much critical thinking. We don’t want to stress your dragon and her ovaries, after all.” When Lessa demands to be taught how to fly alongside all the other young dragonriders, the Weyrleader patronizingly informs her, “Ha ha, silly female, queens don’t fly,” to which Lessa snarls back, “Then why the fuck does she have wings, you douchebag.”
Lessa is furious at F’lar for tricking her into becoming Weyrwoman, when that rank is just an empty title designed to keep her and her dragon trapped inside the Weyr as breeding stock—until F’lar tells her, “Your dragon will mate soon, and her mate’s rider will become Weyrleader. You can influence her choice of mate. Not all of us dudes are misogynistic assholes who want to keep you from becoming the most powerful Weyrwoman you were clearly born to be. DO YOU GET MY DRIFT.”
And that’s kind of the setup. Lessa endures infuriating misogyny, and begins to find ways to undermine the old assholes’ power. Through her persistence and ambition and intelligence, and her refusal to let misogyny keep her down, she becomes the most powerful Weyrwoman in the planet’s history.
Oh, yeah, and because she fights those misogynistic asshats, she ultimately saves the world from annhilation. How’s that for girl power?
All that said: I will note that this book isn’t exactly a feminist dream come true. My blood will always boil whenever F’lar grabs and physically shakes Lessa, for example.
Organized, Greedy Bigots: A Worldwide Villain
The Others series by Anne Bishop
A number of individual villains come and go throughout this amazing series, but they all have a couple things in common: (a) they’re greedy for something—wealth, fame, power—and (b) they’re humans who view those who are “other” from themselves as things to use and/or destroy. Lovely!
No one creates realms like New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop. Now in a thrilling new fantasy series, enter a world inhabited by the Others, unearthly entities—vampires and shape-shifters among them—who rule the Earth and whose prey are humans.
As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.
Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.
Fortunately for you—assuming you actually read this far; holy crap, this post is long—I’ve written a full review of the first in the series, Written in Red, and mini-reviews of the next three in the series.
So I’ll just say that I adore how this series presents a variety of villains, all of whom have their own special approach to greed and bigotry, and through those traits manage to doom (pretty much) everyone around them. Because greed and bigotry don’t end well, kids; accept the people around you for who and what they are, no matter how different, how “other” they might be from you. If you don’t,
you will be dragged down and eaten alive society could break down in awful, bloody ways, and the “others” won’t be the only ones who suffer.
Anyone who actually read all the way through this monster post has earned themselves the dessert or celebratory snack of their choice. I’ll personally handmake your reward, wrap it in the finest paper, and ship it directly into your mouth, because you’ve earned it.