Hi, I'm really interested in those book recommendations about morally ambiguous female protagonists! Thank you and have a nice day :)
Hi! I got your ask last night while I was at work, so after we were done tidying the store and before we left for the night, my co-worker and I walked around the stacks in the Teen section and looked for morally ambiguous YA heroines.
We limited ourselves to titles written by women, which had female protagonists, and in which those protagonists were somewhere in the middle between “good guy” and “bad guy” in the eyes of the law, the world or humanity as a whole. We also limited ourselves to books one or both of us had read (and liked), because…there are a lot of books.
So here goes, complete with links and descriptions on why I consider them #MorallyComplicatedYA. It goes without saying that Scott Bergstrom, his agent, and the author of that Publisher’s Weekly article should all read these books they’ve so blatantly ignored or outright defamed. Most of these are sci-fi and fantasy, but if you can’t see the real world in sci-fi and fantasy, then you’re doing it wrong.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
These don’t need a description. And I’m sorry, but if you think a young girl going through a mental and physical transformation into what Bergstrom seems to think is the sole definition of female empowerment to save her father from human traffickers is more believable than a corrupt government finding new and crueler ways to keep the poor as ignorant as possible under the threat of death to their children in order to keep the rich and privileged as rich, privileged and blind as they can, then I don’t know what world you live in, lady, but it isn’t ours.
The Graceling Realm by Kristin Cashore
“Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight” is literally only the first half of the first sentence of the goodreads description. It’s a great trilogy (of sorts), with POC main characters in every book, all of whom struggle with issues of morality, right and wrong, and what it means to have power.
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Celaena Sardothien is the most famous and accomplished assassin in the kingdom and at the start of the first novel, she is imprisoned in a labour camp for her crimes. She is soon brought before the Crown Prince and told she can win her freedom back if she agrees to participate in a competition for the title of King’s Champion - the royal assassin. If she wins, she will have to do the King’s bidding for four years; a King who cares only for power and thinks nothing of murdering thousands of people and destroying entire cultures. If that’s not morally ambiguous, I don’t know what is. PS.: Celaena kicks major ass and loves to wear pretty dresses (and eat chocolate, and pet dogs, and read romance novels…).
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Feyre is a huntress who kills a wolf in the woods and, as retribution, is taken to the land of the Fae as a prisoner. This may not sound all that morally ambiguous but it becomes clearer closer to the end of the novel (and I don’t want to spoil anything) that she is willing to do anything to protect those she loves. The rest of the characters and pretty much every relationship depicted are morally ambiguous - there are no clear lines between “good” and “evil” here. It’s also very, very absorbing read (and actually really steamy?? I’d probably even classify this as NA).
Legend by Marie Lu
Another dystopian title, but pretty much all dystopian titles are morally ambiguous, lbr here. June is the (POC) protagonist of this one, and she is the star pupil of the military. She is soon put in charge of the task force created to capture the country’s top wanted criminal. June is motivated by revenge and loyalty to her country - until she discovers that her country isn’t exactly the great place she believes it to be and she isn’t quite sure what is right and wrong anymore.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
This book tells the story of six outcasts and one impossible heist. Here we have two morally ambiguous heroines, both of whom have committed crimes in the past and both of whom are willing to do it again to get what they want. Another great book by Leigh Bardugo and I almost included her other books in the list, but I thought it was too long already. Plus, almost no one comes off as “morally complicated” when standing beside The Darkling ;)
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
Mare Barrow is very, very similar to Katniss, some might say. And I agree - but that’s not a bad thing, in my books. She lives in a world where Red-blooded people are the poor majority and the Silver-blooded aristocracy possess powers beyond the political kind. When she (and the Silvers) discover she has powers of her own, she is thrown into a world of political intrigue, betrayals, lies and façades. For her, good and evil has always meant Red and Silver, but now she isn’t so sure. Very addicting, very fast-paced, and very cinematic (I’d much rather go see this in theatres than Jerry Bruckheimer’s new acquisition).
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
This book is powerful, and moving, and scary. And it’s true for too great a number of teenage girls. If Bergstrom wants moral ambiguity that depicts the real world, here it is. Pick up any of Ellen Hopkins books, but especially her Crank trilogy. Or better still, pick up Tricks and Traffick if you want to read a YA series that talks about the reality of human trafficking and stop pretending that you came here to revolutionize a genre that’s been doing just fine on its own. (tw for substance abuse, sexual assault and a myriad of other very, very dark themes)
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
One word: HERMIONE.
And that’s it for my list. I would absolutely love to sit here and come up with more, but I really need to go study. I’m sorry these are mostly popular titles and you may have read all of these, but I know we can find you some more if you’d like!
And if anyone else would like to add some more titles and say why you think they’re morally ambiguous heroines, feel free to do so! Let’s bury one ignorant dude’s dumb comments with amazing examples of YA literature by women and about women and hopefully make a dent in this persistent and damaging idea that women’s media is never good enough until White Dude™ steps in.