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I’ve noticed that in most YA discussions of books, we don’t have many antihero protagonists. Most YA protagonists are known as strong, nice, funny, just, fair, unique, and any number of positive qualities. They almost never make morally compromising choices. Meanwhile, these 10 books (all of which I’ve read and promise are good!) have protagonists who are a combination of good and bad–or, even if they mostly land on one side or the other, aren’t afraid to switch back and forth between sides a bit.
1. The Life and Death of Zebulon Finch: At the Edge of Empire by Daniel Kraus (Zebulon Finch duology Book 1)
If you’re interested in 1920’s gangsters, 19th-century rural life, World War I, old Hollywood, and/or a lot of poor life decisions, you will enjoy this book. The main character, Zebulon Finch, is far from likeable…but that’s what made me want to keep reading. You’ll probably switch between feeling sorry for him and enjoying his infinite, infinite suffering. (Content warning: Although this book is perfectly appropriate for teenagers, being a YA book, there are some scenes of zombie medical gore and violence that some readers may wish to avoid.)
2. This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel (and of course Frankenstein by Mary Shelley) (This Dark Endeavor duology Book 1)
When I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley for English class, I thought, “If Victor Frankenstein were a teenager, he would be really, really emo.” Of course, I had to read this book. Although this book takes place at the time of the original story, the first-person narration portrays the arrogant Frankenstein as your average overconfident teenager, plagued by deep, dark, deathlike solitude and existential conflicts just like most other 15-year-olds. Really, who hasn’t come up with a plot to conquer death while bored in math class? If you enjoy this retelling, you’ll definitely enjoy the original novel, in which Victor gets into the whole “creating-a-monster” thing.
3. Heist Society by Ally Carter (Kat) (Heist Society trilogy Book 1)
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live a life of crime, then try to be a normal person, then go right back into living a life of crime? Kat does just that in this book…and that’s before the story even happens. With a cast of lovable (and morally questionable) characters, the lines of right and wrong are blurred all over the place.
4. Dark Lord: The Early Years by Jamie Thompson (Dirk) (Dark Lord duology Book 1)
This protagonist is more of a flat-out villain than an antihero, but he turns out to be a pretty okay guy. A monstrous warlord from a Dungeons-and-Dragons-like fantasy realm gets sent to Earth–and gets the body of a 12-year-old boy! “Dirk,” as he comes to be called, is sent to live with a foster family and soon makes friends at his new middle school. Fans of fantasy RPGs and Lord of the Rings will love this parody of typical fantasy series.
5. H.I.V.E. by Mark Walden (HIVE series Book 1)
Confession: my 12-year-old self often hoped that I would get called to the office to meet somebody wearing dark sunglasses who would tell me that I qualified to go to some sort of super-spy school. I’m glad that didn’t happen, though, because I’d much rather go to H.I.V.E., the school for supervillains featured in this awesome book. Between growing killer plants straight out of “Little Shop of Horrors” and talking to a mysteriously intelligent computer, the awesome characters in this story are quite good at being evil–but are they really? You’ll have to read to find out.
6. Jackaby by William Ritter (Jackaby trilogy Book 1)
Have you ever wanted to investigate supernatural mysteries? R. F. Jackaby does just that. He’s a bit of a show-off, and obnoxious, and not very likable, but he’s quite a good detective. Full of witty, clever banter, this book is the perfect quick read.
7. Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (Death Note series Book 1)
Light Yagami, top student stressed out by tests with a strong desire for justice, seems like he could be you, or one of your best friends. Except for one little thing…he kills people with an evil notebook. But at the same time, the only people he kills (at first) are violent criminals who torture people for fun. This antihero story will keep you up late at night pondering morality. Just don’t write in any strange books you find laying around on the ground!
8. Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan
This book is one of the few antihero books with a female protagonist (besides Heist Society). After a tragic boating accident, a victim decides to get revenge. Once you start reading, you will have to keep reading all day to find out what happens! I’d explain more, but Daughter of Deep Silence is one of those “suspense” books that you really need to start from the beginning. You will likely feel a bit sorry for the protagonist…but not really.
9. The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens (Books of Beginning trilogy Book 2)
This book is the second in the Books of Beginning series, which is technically in the kids’ section at Reston Regional Library. The first book, The Emerald Atlas, is a prerequisite to understanding the story and is lovely on its own, but the story doesn’t really get good until The Fire Chronicle. Siblings Kate, Emma, and Michael need to find the second book in a series of three that must be combined to save the world. Along the way, they meet some very interesting characters–but can they trust them?
10. Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz (Alex Rider series Book 1)
In the first book in the popular spy series, we meet Alex Rider, a teen superspy…who doesn’t want to be a superspy. Alex is impulsive, headstrong, and honestly, way, way, too emotionless for a 14-year-old, and he is awfully callous about human life, but his adventures make the story worth the read–and you will sometimes wonder if he’s right about his cynical worldview.
Happy (morally ambiguous) reading!