Rita Chang-Eppig sets her rollicking historical debut, Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea, on the 19th-century South China Sea. After pirate captain Cheng Yat is killed during a botched raid, his wife, Shek Yeung, fears for her standing among her fellow outlaws. Cheung Po, Yat’s adopted son, is the fleet’s legal heir, and Yeung worries Po may take the opportunity to wrest control away from her. Meanwhile, the emperor works to extinguish the threat of piracy. What follows is a bold and bloody showdown between the government and the pirate queen. The prose is lyrical and the plot is clever and serpentine, exploring questions of power, violence, gender, and fate.
Whoever said "sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of" obviously didn't know many girls or women. Some of the most fascinating female characters in books, film/TV, and real life are the ones that shake us up and make us uncomfortable. We may not want to be their friends--but we can't deny the lasting hold they have on us. Here are 10 great works of fiction featuring morally questionable women.
It would be criminal for me not to begin with this classic by Shirley Jackson, a novel narrated by Merricat Blackwood, who lives isolated from the rest of the world with her cousin and uncle on their family estate. Why are they isolated? Because some years ago a terrible accident killed most of the family, and the people in the community suspect one of the surviving members. I realize that by giving even this much information I may already be spoiling the book a little, but in my defense, the book was published in 1962, so you've had ample time to read it.
No one writes a luxuriant, gothic short story quite like Angela Carter (except for Mariana Enriquez; see below). Burning Your Boats collects all of Carter's short stories, which spin the tales of jealous countesses, vampire queens, and even Lizzie Borden herself. Entire dissertations have been written on the ways that Carter uses myth to interrogate gender norms, so I'll simply say that this is the ur-collection that spawned all the mythical retellings we're seeing these days.
It was hard to imagine a collection that could rival Enriquez's 2017 effort, Things We Lost in the Fire, but then Enriquez was like, "Hold my beer." In these stories, an exhausted ghost seeks to escape her ghosthood and fanatical teenage girls do the unthinkable out of love for their pop idol. It’s an unforgettable collection that’s not for the faint of heart (or the weak of stomach).
Any retelling of the Circe myth that doesn't cast Circe as a morally questionable character would be missing the point entirely. Thank goodness (or badness?) that Miller didn't miss the point. The novel follows the sorceress's life from her lonely childhood to her eventual meeting with Odysseus, reframing the story that so many of us had to read in high school from a fascinating new perspective.
Any novel about vampires that casts them as purely good would be missing the point, too. Fledgling follows the story of an amnesiac vampire who appears to be a child but is in fact quite old. Her bite has euphoric properties, so when she bites a human, she’s essentially addicting them to herself. But hey, a girl's gotta eat. Butler’s tale explores questions of consent and power in a way that few vampire novels do.
As a teenager, I devoured Anne Rice novels, most of which feature male protagonists, so I was very excited when Pandora came out. The eponymous main character, a vampire, has been alive since the days of ancient Rome. Because of her advanced age, she doesn't technically need to feed, but she does so anyway, sometimes ripping the hearts out of her victims’ chests to squeeze from them the last drops of blood—as one does. At least she fills her victims' minds with comforting visions while she drinks. That counts for something, right?
Ogawa is best known for her novels The Memory Police and The Housekeeper and the Professor, but this delightfully twisted collection may be my favorite book of hers. A scorned woman visits a museum of torture instruments. Another develops an unhealthy attachment to her coworker. Here are stories about female obsession, suppressed rage, and of course, revenge.
In this fantasy novel from Jemisin, a woman navigating both palace and celestial politics does what she needs to survive and root out the truth behind her mother's murder, at times breaking out the ol' "the ends justify the means" argument. What are the moral costs of survival, Jemisin asks, or of participating in a system built on domination and exploitation?
Fine's third novel is a sumptuous and strange visit to the Venice of the 1700s, when a girl's future could be destroyed by her mother’s misdeeds. The book alternates between the POVs of two girls: Maddalena, who is sent to a conservatory after her mother runs away with another man, and Luisa, an aspiring violinist yet to reach her full potential living at the same conservatory. The girls form an intense bond, made more intense by the magic of the waters of Venice. To get what she wants, Maddalena makes increasingly dangerous bargains with the sea.
Look, we all keep secrets in our relationships, but not the kind that the character Indigo Maxwell-Castañada does in Chokshi's adult debut, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride. To say more would be giving away the plot, but here are some key phrases: a fairy-tale marriage, a home called the "House of Dreams," and a best friend who mysteriously disappeared. If this doesn't intrigue you, I don't know what will.