Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

Today I’m reviewing two Tor.com novellas I’ve read this year:

  • The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, which I read this August and hadn’t posted a review of yet, despite having talked about it many times on this blog already
  • The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, a book I read this October for Spookathon.

34613788The Ascent to Godhood is about the relationship between Hekate, the series’ villainess, and Lady Han, a courtesan-turned-revolutionary. It follows how the two met, the times they spent together, and how the relationship fell apart – so, yes, it’s basically an f/f villain romance, with delicious intrigue in the background.

The Tensorate is a series of novellas written in unusual formats, some of which worked for me more than others, and when I heard that The Ascent to Godhood was to be a transcription of “a drunken monologue”, I thought this wouldn’t work for me at all. And was I wrong. You already vaguely know how the story ends, and you’re being told by Lady Han what happened, and yet it works – maybe too much? (Those were my FEELINGS, book. How dare you.) It makes up for the details lost in the telling with a narrative voice that you will remember, and maybe exactly because of the few descriptions you’re given, the few details you know are even more memorable.
This ended up being my favorite novella in the series.

This is not the story of a revolution. It is much more personal than that, it’s a story about love and loss and grief, and it deliberately doesn’t focus on Hekate’s downfall, because that’s not what was important to Lady Han to begin with. Lady Han loved this terrible woman, and hated her just as much, and this is about how those feelings can coexist, and this complicated, twisted relationship. If you’re looking for something that is about political intrigue and a revolution, you’re going to be disappointed – they’re the background, not the focus. I didn’t mind that; I was there for the villain romance, and all the conflicting feelings that come with it. It’s probably my favorite trope, and it means so much to me to finally see a book focus specifically on an f/f version of it.

Villainous, competent women are my favorite kind of characters, so I knew right from the beginning that Hekate was going to have a lot of potential, but I didn’t think I would get a book focusing on her, and I’m so glad this exists. Lady Han is also brave and shrewd and manipulative, and I loved reading her version of the story.
The Ascent to Godhood is a tragedy, one about how your love and admiration for a person can mislead you, and about how the excessive mistrust from those experiences can destroy you all the same. Tragic f/f love stories in which the tragedy has nothing to do with homophobia, like the m/f ones that have existed since forever, have so much value, and while this is a tragic gay story, it’s not the kind of tragic gay story we’re so familiar with.

I also loved how this novella and The Descent of Monsters were tied to each other. I didn’t love The Descent of Monsters, but this novella gave it more meaning. I really recommend reading this even if you, like me, thought the third book was kind of a waste of your time. The only thing I still don’t understand is what is even up with Sonami. I mean, this book kind of gave me an answer, but as she’s not a developed character at all, I’d still love to know more.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content warnings: suicide of a minor character, child trafficking, death of a toddler, forced sterilization. Nothing graphic because you’re just being told about it, and usually not in detail.


42269378-1This was so gory, disgusting and atmospheric you could almost feel the smell of decay wafting from the pages.

The Monster of Elendhaven is a dark fantasy novella following an immortal, magical man as he meets another man who might be even more dangerous than him, and who might have some nefarious plans; deliciously evil relationship ensues.

What I loved the most about this novella was the writing. It is vivid, even though most of the time you kind of wish it hadn’t been, because Elendhaven is a horrible place to be in, and every single character is on some level corrupt and/or unhinged. I loved it for that; it truly makes you experience just how ugly this world is. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the narrator’s humor made this city bearable to read about and also made it feel more real.

“Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle.”

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

I also really liked the way the relationship was being set up: as usual, I’m always there for the trainwrecks, especially if they involve gay characters being evil the way a straight one would be allowed to be. (I don’t feel like the novella explored the full potential of it, but that’s not too unusual for short books.)

Those two things were a significant part of why I loved the first half, which introduces the reader to the world, the characters and what they’re up to; I thought this was going to be amazing because of what it seemed to lead up to.
And then… it just fizzled out. It starts talking about an apocalypse and then just ends with that? (I know, I’m vague, but I keep things non-spoilery.) Maybe there’ll be a sequel, I don’t know. What I know is that when I got to the end, my main feeling was “that’s it?”

I hesitate to say that this isn’t good, because it is well-written, but I didn’t really get what it was going for, and in the end, I kept thinking about so many other directions it could have taken that I would have liked more – but then that’s kind of wanting to read a different book.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any great novellas/stories about villains lately?

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Discussion

How I Fell In Love With Villains, in Five Steps

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


I

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.

18241502But 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.


 II

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.

8755776-1I 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.


III

10194157Then 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.

IV

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.

TheStatsAreLegionI 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.


V

NinefoxGambitIf 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?

I don’t think I’ve read other books not mentioned here that specifically have this trope, but some books I can recommend/I want to read that have similar themes are:

 

  • The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard – this one has a hero/antivillain m/m pairing with a sort of redemption arc and it’s the only time I actually saw this trope done in a way that I liked. Anyway, this series is Paranormal Political Intrigue in Paris.
  • Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente – are you a Shadow and Bone fan? Do you have a strong tolerance for what initially looks like nonsense? Then you really should read this. It’s not a villain romance, but its storyline will appeal to villain romance fans.
  • Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan – I’m currently reading it and AAAAAAAAAAA!!! Anyway. I’m still not 100% sure it’s exactly a villain romance but it does look like it will go there, and even if it doesn’t, it will appeal to villain romance fans just for the aesthetic. Also, the author’s blog is where I found villain and monster romance recommendations for years, so I trust her.

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

14-year-olds are so mature, wow. Anyway, knowing what aromanticism was would have helped me a lot at the time

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.

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

Read: not misogynistic caricatures

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

 

Weekly

T5W: Required Reading for Evil Overlords

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is Book List for Class on [pick genre/trope/etc].

Just in time for back to school, create a reading list for a class on a bookish topic of your choice.

I probably should have written a post about which books I would choose for a class on a genre, but Evil Overlords need help too (and will never admit it). After all, what’s a SFF book without a memorable villain?
This is a list to help you conquer your enemies with class. A list to make you unstoppable. A list of books for those days in which you can’t see the light darkness at the end of the tunnel.

And if you need some additional tips, there’s an Evil Overlord list online! (It also kind of inspired this post and it’s an useful lists for writers too, if you’re not familiar with it.)


Shadow and Bone

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Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo: a YA fantasy book set in a Russian-inspired world.

Here you’ll learn:

  • that you absolutely should try to seduce the heroine: your readers will demand you get a redemption arc and happy ending no matter what terrible things you do, and you can count on being the most popular character in the book too until a handsome prince steals the spotlight
  • I’m not saying you shouldn’t move around the country in a black carriage pulled by black horses, dressed in black and also cutting people in half, but you know, sometimes subtlety really does pay off.
  • On the other hand, the aesthetic is 10/10

Ancillary Justice

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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: a well-known adult sci-fi novel about AIs.

Here you’ll learn:

  • how to give a whole new meaning to “you are your own worst enemy”
  • why multiplying yourself to achieve ubiquity is a bad idea
  • starting a civil was with yourself, while being a sign of good, healthy megalomania, is not recommended
  • don’t be like Anaander Mianaai. But by not being like Anaander Mianaai, you might end up being Anaander Mianaai.

Ninefox Gambit

NinefoxGambit

The Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee: sci-fantasy books I like to describe as mass murder magic math in space. Almost everyone is a manipulative bastard here.

Here you’ll learn:

  • that war is so much better if other people fight it for you – you can spend your time exploring this year’s new fashion trends (as long as they don’t involve neck frills. That’s just ugly)
  • Sometimes you just have to torture someone. Reducing stress, taking negativity out of your life – those things are important and good for your skin.
  • trying to fit all your past boyfriends in a refrigerator is a bad idea. You’re not a praying mantis, stop

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

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Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao: A Snow-White retelling set in a East Asian-inspired world, told from the point of view of the evil queen.

Here you’ll learn:

  • that love is overrated. Why bother with romance when you could spend your time being powerful, pretty, and eating your enemies’ hearts?
  • After so many books in which the villains get defeated, sometimes it’s good to see someone like you succeed
  • however, this can also work as a cautionary tale: beauty is an important weapon, but it shouldn’t be the only source of your self-esteem
  • and you’ll love Xifeng, of course.

The Stars Are Legion

TheStatsAreLegion

The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley: an adult biopunk horror book set in space with an all-lesbian cast.

Here you’ll learn:

  • to not get involved in political intrigue. Why bother with secret plots when you could use more effective tools (…like mass murder?)
  • that marrying someone who kind of wants you dead might not be the best idea, no matter how much you want to sleep with them and they want to sleep with you.
  • inspirational quotes from the Annals of the Legion
  • you’ll feel validated because literally everyone is kind of into villains here
  • also the best female villain ever is here, so.

One more! A Court of Mist and Fury

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A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas: A new adult fantasy romance about the fae.

Here you’ll learn:

  • If this is your villainous style, why are you even here. Your calling is not being an evil overlord, it’s opening a matchmaking agency
  • you hopeless romantic
  • I don’t know if anyone is going to pay you to get thrown in a cauldron, though

What would you recommend to an Evil Overlord? Have you read any of these? Who are your favorite and least favorite book villains?

Weekly

T5W: Characters on the Naughty List

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is  Characters on the Naughty List.

These can be villains or just characters you don’t like!


The Falcon

Solya, usually called “the falcon”, is one of the two main wizards from Uprooted. He’s a self-important, power-hungry backstabbing wizard, so unapologetically terrible I loved to read his scenes.


Reid Briar

Reid is the only character from Wild Beauty who can be considered an antagonist, and the only one I didn’t love (all the other characters are awesome and the writing is even better, read this book). He tries to steal La Pradera from the Nomeolvides women and to exploit their powers. I loved how irrelevant he was by the end of the novel.


Rasida

She is… truly horrible, messed up and manipulative. I wanted to see more of her just because of that.

The Stars Are Legion may be the only novel with a f/f/f love triangle that also includes a heroine/villain ship. I need to reread this book, it was a great, disgusting (so much gore) time.


Ghreni and Nadashe Nohamapetan

The universe is ending. This is the right time to backstab everyone in sight and make a huge mess because even if we have space travel not everyone is updated on what’s actually going on! All of this to make money and establish the family as the head of the new empire, of course.

Everyone is terrible in this book, but the Nohamapetans are on a whole other level.


Margot Adams

Rich, beautiful and charismatic, Margot is the kind of girl everyone falls in love with. She’s also really manipulative. Her “friends” might be even worse, but anyway, I’m always there for messed up women.


Have you read any of these books? What are some naughty characters you just love to hate?

Weekly

T5W: Villainous Faves

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is  Problematic Faves.

Characters you don’t want to love, but you can’t help liking.

If I had to answer this – if I had to make a list of characters “I don’t want to love but I can’t help liking” my answer would be none. That’s because I don’t believe characters can be problematic, and I have no problems with liking villains.

Yes, characters can do bad things, but villains are villains for a reason (you can’t have some kinds of narratives without villains!), and if someone tells you you shouldn’t like a villain/a morally gray character… they’re wrong. Also kind of controlling and unable to understand how stories work, but this is another discussion, the one where you have to explain that liking a fictional mass murderer doesn’t mean you would ever want to emulate them.

If the books excuses villanous actions or portrays them as good, the one that’s problematic is the book, not the character. It’s always about the framing. So this isn’t a list of problematic faves – I don’t have those – but it’s a list of my favorite morally gray characters, the ones who fall on the darker end of the spectrum.


Nahadoth from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

TheHundredThousandKingdoms

If you want to try a fantasy book with a not-exactly-villain/heroine romance and a diverse cast, try this one. It’s great. I haven’t read Jemisin’s new series, which is far more hyped and loved, but I almost never see anyone talk about this one? I loved it. I mean, Nahadoth is basically a genderfluid god of chaos.


Tea of the Embers from The Bone Witch

TheBoneWitch

Tea was the main reason I liked this book. She’s a bone witch, a witch that can raise monsters (the daeva) and also the dead. She currently lives on a beach full of bones and she always wear beautiful clothes. I love her.


The Darkling from Shadow and Bone

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The Darkling is the character that showed me I loved characters with an evil side. I’ve read this trilogy in 2015 and it’s still one of my favorite YA series.


Bette Abney from Tiny Pretty Things

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A mean girl, but not your stereotypical mean girl, Bette Abney is one of the three narrators of the Tiny Pretty Things series. She has one of the most interesting character arcs I’ve ever read, especially in the second book, Shiny Broken Pieces. If you want a book about messed-up teenagers (backstabbing ballerinas, but the adults are worse!) with a diverse cast that is not terribly stereotypical (I’m looking at you, The Thousandth Floor) read this duology.


Shuos Jedao from Ninefox Gambit

NinefoxGambit

I could have made a list only with characters from this book – they are all terrible, I love them – but I’m going to talk about him today. Jedao was one of the best generals in the history of the Heptarchate, up until his last battle, at Hellspin Fortress. There he destroyed two armies, one of them his own, for apparently no reason. He’s currently preserved as a many-eyed ghost – he’s too good at tactics to be killed, but it would be too dangerous to free him. He’s a chatty manipulative bastard and I didn’t expect to like him so much.


What are your favorite villainous characters? What do you think of “problematic faves”?