Nearly a year ago (still crazy to think I’ve been regularly blogging more than a year), I did a post on my favourite villains in YA. I’ve obviously read a lot, both in and out of YA, since then, and I’ve been thinking again about the antagonists I’ve come across. I use “antagonists” because I wouldn’t categorise all (or even, for the people below, most) of them as villains–they’re certainly not the whiskey-sipping, (under)dog-kicking big bad you’ve pictured since Hans Gruber; rather, they are for the most part sympathetic people who happen to be working against the protagonist.
I’m focusing on sci-fi/fantasy because it’s what I’ve mostly been reading recently. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a wealth of three-dimensional, maddening antagonists who run the gamut from just misunderstood to full-on megalomaniac sadists. Normally, the most compelling figures fall somewhere in between, making you question where your allegiances lie. As the Daredevil quote goes, there are no heroes or villains, just people with different agendas.
There’s nothing to add nuance to a story like a good antivillain. When it comes to them, bad isn’t just cool. It’s understandable. It’s worth rooting for. Maybe, sometimes, if you let the boundaries blur enough, it’s even right. No matter how many liberties fiction takes with history, the two remain alike in one sense: They’re told by the victors. Whether you love to hate them or straight up love them, the losers below are worth more than a little consideration.
Since villain/antagonist reveals are a common trope, note that there are character spoilers for Warcross, Muse of Nightmares and This Cruel Design below. If you’re still with me, here are five of my favourite recent SFF antagonists:
5. Novali Nyoka-vasa, Muse of Nightmares
Who she is: Sister of Korako who is left on Rieva when Skathis abducts Kora. Nova’s life is used to keep her sister in line for years. By the time of Muse of Nightmares she has spent decades to centuries on a quest to rescue Kora, not knowing that Kora is already dead by the Godslayer’s hand.
Why she’s great: Nova isn’t a villain by any stretch of the word. What she is is a determined woman who loves her sister enough to traverse universes to free her, to the point where her worldview narrows to nothing more than Kora. Her drive for vengeance eventually brings her into conflict with protagonists Lazlo and Sarai who are, of course, allied with the man who killed Nova’s sister.
It’s so hard not to feel for Nova. I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that she and Kora deserved much, much better. Imagine being enslaved by a sadist and made to serve as his spymaster for centuries, so that you’re lumped in with your oppressors and eventually slaughtered by the same rebellion that you secretly aided. Or being the spymaster’s sister, knowing that the one person you love is relying on you to get her out. As Nova realises, “There comes a certain point with a hope or a dream, when you either give it up or give up everything else. And if you choose the dream, if you keep on going, then you can never quit, because it’s all you are.”
4. Nadashe Nohamapetan, The Collapsing Empire
Who she is: Scion of the mercantile House of Nohamapetan and master manipulator. Formerly engaged to Rennered Wu, heir to the Interdependency, until an…unfortunate racing accident took him out of the picture.
Why she’s great: A villain in any sense of the word, Nadashe is so ruthlessly effective that part of me can’t help but respect her. She effortlessly manipulates her brothers, her friends and her enemies alike to carry out her bidding while keeping her hands squeaky clean.
In the second book we get to see a few chapters from her POV, and what strikes me is how she just doesn’t care. Nadashe doesn’t believe she’s doing the right thing–she’s just totally selfish. If she has any worldview, it would be along the lines of “I’ll get mine, and everyone else can go fuck themselves”. Yet, despite her murderous tendencies, Nadashe is affable, even charming, down to her inner monologue. Her sociopathy is chilling.
Her name is pronounced Na-ha-ma-PEE-tin according to Word of God, by the way.
3. Marcella Riggins, Vengeful
Who she is: Mob wife turned ExtraOrdinary with the ability to decompose anything she touches, up to catching a knife blade and destroying it before it can cut her. Sick of being sidelined, she wastes no time taking vengeance and snatching power in her own right.
Why she’s great: Marcella’s transformation from the power behind her husband’s throne to queen of Merit’s criminal underworld is awesome to watch. V.E. Schwab herself noted Marcella as a reaction to the story of Vicious, which was dominated by the personal feud between two men (Victor and Eli–amazing characters themselves) with women serving as their sidekicks. How many men would she have to turn to dust before one took her seriously? Marcella asks herself at one point. Sadly, and predictably, the answer is too many.
Yes, she’s vindictive, yes she’s ambition in stilettos, and yes, she’s perfectly happy leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. These things make Marcella exactly the type of alluring villain I look for in superhero stories.
2. Hideo Tanaka, Wildcard
Who he is: Former child prodigy who created NeuroLink (VR glasses) at age 13, becoming the billionaire CEO of Henka Games and founder of Warcross, the VR video game and worldwide phenomenon. Haunted by the disappearance of his brother at a young age, he attempts to use NeuroLink to eradicate all crime through mind control.
Why he’s great: Look, I really like where Hideo’s character went in Wildcard. In classic Marie Lu fashion, Marie Lu colours in the motives of the tragic villain thinking he’s changing the world for good in intimate, compelling detail. Not that I’d appreciate being piloted by a chip in my head, but I would join a Hideo Did Nothing Wrong squad. Obviously he took things a bit far, but the chips were theoretically a decent idea, at least one that started with decent intentions.
I’m actually in the crowd (there might be two or three of us!) that wishes Wildcard focused more on the philosophical aspect, because it was such an interesting concept and sci-fi is always a slick way of exploring human nature etc. Hideo’s ideas re: free will were a big part of that.
Honourable mention to his brother Sasuke/Zero as well, who makes for quite the satisfying antivillain.
1. Jun Bei, This Cruel Design
Who she is: Human child experiment of the Zarathustra Initiative and daughter of Lachlan Agatta, its director. Eventually escaped the lab as a teenager and wrote the Origin code controlling human instincts. After a botched attempt to wipe her own memories left her comatose, Lachlan created the second personality of Catarina in the same body to help Jun Bei’s mind heal, leading to the events of This Mortal Coil.
Why she’s great: A brilliant idealist, Jun Bei will do anything to save humanity–even if it means standing at a terminal and making choices for the whole world. When Lachlan’s plan to kill Catarina to bring Jun Bei back fails and their two consciousnesses are trapped in one body, instead of hating Catarina as Lachlan expected, Jun Bei defends her, determined that they can coexist. Instead of supporting Lachlan’s plan to wipe out humanity’s instinct of violence, Jun Bei stands up for free will. Instead of allowing shadow organisation Cartaxus to sacrifice millions on the surface to protect billions sequestered underground, Jun Bei foils their plans and exposes their corruption in a stroke of genius.
Yet, at the end of This Cruel Design, she proves her father’s daughter and, once more, violates humanity’s free will by wiping everyone’s memories of the outbreak. The difference between her and the other fatally flawed idealists who came before her is that she succeeded. Only the third book will tell if Jun Bei can be brought back. I have high hopes. Like Catarina notes, she’s scared, betrayed and carries deep scars, but she’s not a monster.
Who are your favourite antagonists or villains? What do you think makes antagonists interesting to read about? If you’d like to share your thoughts on these questions or any of the characters I’ve talked about, I’d love to talk about it in the comments!
Hope you enjoyed today’s post, and hope the spoilers didn’t deter too many people. This might be the last long discussion post I’ll do in a while, considering that I go back to uni on Wednesday for another two months of term. As usual, thanks for reading! xx