This post was inspired by a T5W prompt involving nostalgia about ships. It was up for approximately half an hour, so if you think you’ve already seen it, you’re not hallucinating – I wrote it a few days before that Wednesday, but that Wednesday I was just too tired to have a discussion about this and took it down. And now it’s up again!
The Actual Post
When I saw what the topic was, I immediately thought that I was going to skip it – mostly because I’m far too young to be nostalgic about anything involving books, especially ships. Also, I’m about as romantic as a pineapple¹ and I don’t think I found a canon bookish couple I actually liked and felt strongly about until… early 2017? That was less than two years ago.
But thinking about it, I do have something romance-related and nostalgia-related I can talk about, so I’m going to do something a little different: I’m going to tell you how I became a villain romance fan in five steps,
and why I think that there’s no point to a villain if the main character doesn’t try to kiss them
When I was in middle school, I didn’t read as much as I read now, and most of what I read was either middle grade or adult fantasy written by white men and published at least ten years before I was born.
The only American YA novel I had read was Twilight, and I thought it was more boring than the Silmarillion, so at the time I chose to not explore the genre more. Let’s say, then, that the novels I usually read tended to have (mostly) flat, generally not that interesting and definitely not fascinating villains.
But then I read an Italian YA fantasy series, Le leggende del mondo emerso (it means The Legends of the Emerged World, more or less), which today I probably wouldn’t like that much: it had flat worldbuilding, questionable tropes and it was overwhelmingly straight and white. But you know what it had? A young (or just young-looking? I don’t remember), according-to-canon attractive, very evil green-haired elf as a villain. I think his name was Kryss, and he was an extremist, a terrible person, but he actually had a relatively interesting reason for what he was doing – without being in any way redeemed.
Twelve-year-old me loved reading about him. I kind of shipped one of the main characters with him even though I’m not even sure they met each other… and still wanted him to die. It was a weird time³, but have I changed in any way since? No. The Evil Trash Elf would still totally be my favorite character today.
Before I started blogging, before I started reading enough to write book reviews regularly, I was a writer. That was more or less from 2013 to 2015/2016.
This is relevant to what I’m talking about today not because I wrote something that is actually worth reading (lol)³, but because without knowing what I was doing, without knowing what I wanted it to be, I attempted writing a villain romance book.
I had no idea of where the story was going – I have never been a planner in any aspect of my life – but I knew that I didn’t want it to be a romance, and that I wanted the only character similar to a love interest to be a backstabbing villainous character. I didn’t even think “I’m doing this because I like villain romance”, I did that because I thought romance was stupid4. Let’s say that my “just-as-romantic-as-a-dishwasher” vein is probably one of the reasons I still love messed up villain romances that end with tragedy/dead people, even if I don’t think romance is stupid now.
But I didn’t know that then. I did notice that while I was reading The Mortal Instruments series I was far more interested in Sebastian Morgenstern being an absolutely creepy trashfire than I was in any of the actual romance subplots, but the Sebastian/Clary plotline wasn’t what I wanted from villains either (…I don’t like it when hero and villain are relatives, but it’s Cassandra Clare, of course there will be something that either looks like or is incest). I wanted something different.
Then I read Shadow and Bone.
I owe this book a lot. So much that “making me discover what I actually wanted from stories about villains” isn’t even in the top ten – this book is the reason I’m a reviewer.
But since this is not a Thank You, Shadow and Bone Post but a Why I Love Villain Romances post, I’m going to talk about the villain romance angle instead of the changed-my-life-forever-or-something-like-that part.
Warning: it will contain light spoilers for the series.
Shadow and Bone is the first book I read in which not only the villain is overdramatic, attractive, and has the best aesthetic, he is also kind of a love interest for the main character, has a truly interesting motivation that actually makes sense, and doesn’t get a redemption arc5.
So, what I want from villain romances, and why I like them:
- For it to work, the villain needs to be developed. A developed villain means a villain with interesting motivations, and villains with interesting motivations make terrific books;
- For it to work, you need to like the main character even though they tend to make terrible choices and have terrible taste in love interests.
- The conflict!!!! They’re attracted to each other, but do they value their morals and goals more? How much more? How far are they willing to go?
- The sexual tension will always make the villain romance scenes really, really entertaining to read
- The feelings. Let’s say that it usually doesn’t end well for at least one of the characters involved and I love pain
- It’s not actually a romance, and I love every story that talks about the dark and toxic side of love, because at least I can understand that. Books will assume that I know how having a crush is like, so they don’t always… develop them. But “the main character is attracted to the villain even though [villain] is a murderer or something” needs a really good motivation to work and the book has to make an effort to make you understand it. I really appreciate that.
- To work for me, the dynamic needs to not be one-sided. And I don’t mean that only for the attraction, I mean that if one of the characters is trying to use/hurt the other, the other must also be trying to use/hurt them back (…that one scene in Ruin and Rising… wow). It’s not interesting otherwise.
If you like villains, eventually The Discourse will find you. Especially if you’re into some really popular fandom, but even if you aren’t, there are so many people whose favorite hobby is to tell others that they’re enjoying fiction wrong. It’s mostly tumblr – whoever described that site as “protestantism with a gay hat” is right – but not only.
You’ll hear that you’re somehow promoting toxic relationships. I like to read about toxic stuff, so I must want to be in that situation? Yes, that’s how it works, we all know that all people who read horror secretly want to be dismembered by something in their basement. And people will tell you that “it’s fine as long as you say that it isn’t healthy”, but that… should go without saying? Should I also put a “warning: MURDER IS ACTUALLY BAD” every time I talk about liking Kaz from Six of Crows? And it’s not like any of these books are trying to act like couples like Darkling/Alina are healthy.
I specifically like villain romances because they are by definition unhealthy. If that’s not for you, that’s perfectly fine, we don’t all have to like the same things.
Also: just because I like the hero/villain dynamic, it doesn’t mean I don’t want the villain to die – I often do, especially if the story features extreme gray morality. “I ship them” for me means “I like reading their scenes/their dynamic”, not “they’d make a great couple and I want them to end up together and make babies”.
I’m here to have fun. I’m here for the entertainment and the feelings. I’m definitely not here to envision the most Perfect, Healthy Scenario I Could Live In.
I hate the “think of the children” panic, especially when I started shipping heroes and villains without the book having a villain romance in it when I was a preteen (and even then, I didn’t think it was something I wanted for myself), especially when… the villain romance books themselves aren’t showing them as healthy. I also strongly dislike how “shipping” for some people means “misguided activism” and trying to decide which ship is The Healthiest6.
Another thing you’ll hear is that people like villains just because they’re attractive white men and they’d ship attractive white men with everything. I mean, there is some truth in the second part of that sentence, and I do struggle with the fact that I can’t find enough lady villains that are as developed and interesting7 as male ones. But there are some! In 2017, I found a sci-fi book that is still one of my all-time favorites today, The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley, in which there is an all-lesbian cast and a heroine/villainess romance I love so much. It has everything I want from villain romances, including: a villain with the best aesthetic, murder, characters manipulating or attempting to manipulate each other, sexual tension, betrayal, and a quote I love a lot.
I have wanted to hate her all my life, but as I’ve learned since my early days pining after Rasida, I am drawn to and desire my enemies, and it may be my worst flaw.
Like, yes? This is what I want to read about.
If you’ve been here before, you probably already know that Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is my favorite book. Just like with Shadow and Bone, there are a lot of reason for that, but: would a book ever be Acqua’s favorite if it didn’t have well-written villain content and a villain trainwreck romance8?
Of course not.
Ninefox Gambit is a completely different story from Shadow and Bone, but it has the one element that mattered to me, and took it further. Unlike YA fantasy, military science fiction has a tendency to Actually Go There when we talk about dark themes, and this book does. Also, everyone is evil and everyone is queer, which is… basically what I want from fiction.
Unfortunately, I don’t know that many other books that had these elements and made them work in a way that was satisfying to me, but trust that I’m always looking for them. If you’re also drawn to this kind of dynamic, I would recommend checking out The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard (hero/antivillain m/m pairing with a sort of redemption arc), Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (not what I’d call a villain romance, but its storyline will appeal to villain romance fans) and The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang (buildup and fallout of an F/F villain romance).
¹ I will mention Cassandra Clare’s books in this post, so I’m in the mood for nonsense comparison and similes, Clare-style. I still haven’t forgiven the one time she described killer whales as being “striped in black and white like an Edwardian garden chaise”. You really think your average reader knows how an Edwardian garden chaise looks like but not a killer whale? If you’re describing killer whales as scary, why are you comparing them to a chair? I’m sorry, I feel strongly about this
² The main character of that series, the girl you see on the cover, is called Adhara and she’s a literal reanimated corpse who is rotting alive as the series goes on. It really was a weird time, I miss Italian fantasy sometimes
³ I will never let anyone read what I wrote when I was 14 and the world will be a better place for that. Anyway, I wrote about creepy plant magic (because of course), creepy forests (who do you think I am), and a 500-page-long book about fantasy aliens who just really want to stab people
4 14-year-olds are so mature, wow. Anyway, knowing what aromanticism was would have helped me a lot at the time
5 I can like redemption arcs! I also like villain romance books that end happily because the villain is redeemed. It’s just that most can’t write them in a way that I find satisfying.
6 That’s how you get people [a significant subset of the Shadow and Bone fandom, especially on tumblr] arguing that Mal is actually abusive and the Darkling isn’t, because just saying “I like to read about [x] and don’t like reading about [y]” is not possible in Puritytown
7 Read: not misogynistic caricatures
8 In the first book, it’s mostly subtext. In the following ones, it’s clear that it totally happened (it’s very… explicitly canon in the third book and it’s the romance embodiment of the word yikes).
What are your thoughts on villain romances? Also, I promise that I actually don’t hate Cassandra Clare