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The Good, the Bad, and the Snarky: 6 YA Novels Starring Morally Ambiguous Characters

Snarky, complex villains have always had a special place in my heart, so I'm always thrilled when a protagonist veers towards wicked. I can't look away! Characters who make bad choices and have to deal with the fallout are the people I want to read about, so here's a list of my favorite homicidal psychopaths and hyper-competitive heartbreakers.

In Her Skin by Kim Savage

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Y'all, I am obsessed with this book. Jo Chastain and Temple Lovecraft are two of my top favorite characters ever. Homeless con artist Jo impulsively pretends to be a missing girl so she can get off the streets and into the Lovecraft family's luxurious brownstone, where she grows close to their fascinating, unpredictable teenage daughter Temple. But it turns out the Lovecrafts aren't as perfect as they seem, and deception is a tricky weapon to wield. Both girls are keeping secrets that could ruin everything, and before long they're engaged in a life-or-death game with the truth. Jo and Temple are captivating and complicated, and this book is a twisted, suspenseful gem.

"Anyone can be made to do what you need them to do. You have to understand their greatest desire. Once you know it, you have power over them."

Winner Take All by Laurie Devore

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This has to be the most competitive, compulsive relationship I've read this year and let me tell you, I loved every minute. Nell Becker has fought for everything she's earned. Privileged Jackson Hart is used to always being the best. Only one of them can be valedictorian. These over-achieving rivals are both fixated on winning at whatever cost, and soon their competitive fire ignites into a whirlwind romance. But when a destructive secret threatens to burn their lives to the ground, their games turn out to have consequences. This one has it all: intoxicating obsession, breathtaking cruelty, and an unyielding look at the price of perfection.

"I won't stop until I win. It's my fatal flaw, and Jackson Hart reads me like a book."

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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I am all about morally ambiguous beautiful people, and The Cruel Prince leans way in on good looks and loose ethics. After their parents are murdered, Jude and her sisters are kidnapped by a faerie warrior and raised as his children. Ten years later, Jude is tired of being constantly reminded of her human status. Despite the decade of malice and treachery she's witnessed, she wants to fit in with the High Court of Faerie. Prince Cardan, the High King's youngest child, is the worst (and most beautiful) of all, so Jude accepts an offer to spy on him in exchange for a place at Court. Everything after that is an avalanche of political scheming, deception, espionage, and murder. No one is a hero. Everyone lies and tricks and kills. I am in way too deep with hateful Cardan and his flower crown, but it's Jude and her determination to win at all costs that enchanted me.

"Instead of being afraid, I could become something to fear.”

Bound to You by Alyssa Brandon

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Imagine meeting the person who's destined to be your soulmate and immediately feeling the eternal bond of your true love snapping into place... and his first words to you are "Oh hell." That's exactly what happens to Megan Ross, a spirited alpha werewolf who wants nothing more than romance and devotion. But even though James is a cold-hearted jerk desperate to resist their attraction, the chapters from his perspective reveal there's more to him than Megan knows. I love sassy slow-burn werewolf romances, and this one includes a castle!

"'Why do you hate me so much?' I blurted out, immediately feeling my cheeks go red. I hadn’t meant to ask him that. Part of me was still holding out hope that he did like me and was just hiding it. Really well.

'I don’t hate you,' James said, turning up the radio. 'I just don’t . . . care.'"

To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo

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Murderous siren princess Lira collects the hearts of human princes she's killed and hoards them like trophies, which is everything I want in a protagonist. But after she kills one of her own, she's transformed into a human and exiled to the world above. Prince Elian roams the ocean killing sirens, and he's on the hunt for Lira, but when he rescues a drowning woman he has no idea she's the infamous murderer. Tasked with collecting his heart, Lira must earn his trust and grow close to him, or stay a human forever. Lira and Elian are both vicious and brutal and they're not sorry about it. I love twisted retellings, and this take on The Little Mermaid is monstrous and beautiful.

“You are a little heartless today, aren't you?"

"Never," I say. "There are seventeen under my bed.”

The Young Elites by Marie Lu

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I was warned when I got this book that you can't be sure whether the protagonist is the hero or the villain, so obviously I cast aside the rest of my TBR and dove right in. Ten years after a blood fever ravaged Adelina Amouteru's country and left her motherless and without her left eye, she discovers the illness gave her an extraordinary gift—or is it a curse? After the mysterious Young Elites rescue Adelina from near death, she must master her abilities to help intriguing, powerful Enzo save others like them from the despotic Inquisition Axis. Adelina has a gruesome, vengeful power, and after years of abuse and neglect, she's ready to use it—but can she control her terrible gift, or will she give into the darkness?

"I am tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside. It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt."

Who are your favorite YA anti-heroes? Let us know in the comments below!

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Eleonore F.

Executive assistant at Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, New Orleans native, Taylor Swift fan, Taurus, and CW binge-watcher.

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