Book Recommendation · Seasonal Event

Books With Morally Gray and Villainous Female Leads

Recommending Books With Morally Gray and Villainous Female Leads

Hello friends! It’s Vera here today, back with another Spooky October post. For those who are new here, Spooky October is a month-long event here at Wordy and Whimsical where we share Halloween appropriate posts throughout October. Today, I’m concentrating on a topic that isn’t only suitable for horror and thriller fans, but could be interesting for a wide variety of people; after all, many readers love reading books with morally gray characters.

I feel like a lot of bookish lists that feature morally gray characters tend to include more male than female characters. This is something I find really frustrating, especially given how my all time favorite morally gray and villainous characters are women. So for my own morally gray book list, I’m focusing on female characters only. To make this post a little bit different from my usual recommendations, I’ve included each book’s genre(s), age category, content warnings, as well as two fun categories: mood and pacing. (For these last two, I was inspired by the way the storygraph categorizes books, just to give credit where it is due.)

Sweet Pea by C. J. Skuse

Rhiannon is your average girl next door, settled with her boyfriend and little dog…but she’s got a killer secret.

Although her childhood was haunted by a famous crime, Rhiannon’s life is normal now that her celebrity has dwindled. By day, her job as an editorial assistant is demeaning and unsatisfying. By evening, she dutifully listens to her friends’ plans for marriage and babies while secretly making a list.

A kill list.

From the man at the grocery checkout who always mishandles her apples, to the driver who cuts her off on her way to work, to the people who have it coming, Rhiannon is ready to get her revenge.

Because the girl everyone overlooks might be able to get away with murder…

🍁 Age / Genre: adult, horror, crime, thriller

🍁 Mood: dark, funny, tense

🍁 Pacing: slow to medium

🍁 Content Warnings: death, violence, murder, fathphobia, sexual assault, torture


The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid

A Diabolic is ruthless. A Diabolic is powerful. A Diabolic has a single task: Kill in order to protect the person you’ve been created for.

Nemesis is a Diabolic, a humanoid teenager created to protect a galactic senator’s daughter, Sidonia. The two have grown up side by side, but are in no way sisters. Nemesis is expected to give her life for Sidonia, and she would do so gladly. She would also take as many lives as necessary to keep Sidonia safe.

When the power-mad Emperor learns Sidonia’s father is participating in a rebellion, he summons Sidonia to the Galactic court. She is to serve as a hostage. Now, there is only one way for Nemesis to protect Sidonia. She must become her. Nemesis travels to the court disguised as Sidonia—a killing machine masquerading in a world of corrupt politicians and two-faced senators’ children. It’s a nest of vipers with threats on every side, but Nemesis must keep her true abilities a secret or risk everything.

As the Empire begins to fracture and rebellion looms closer, Nemesis learns there is something more to her than just deadly force. She finds a humanity truer than what she encounters from most humans. Amidst all the danger, action, and intrigue, her humanity just might be the thing that saves her life—and the empire.

🍁 Age / Genre: young adult, fantasy, sci-fi, romance

🍁 Mood: adventurous, dark, tense

🍁 Pacing: fast

🍁 Content Warnings: violence, drug use, addiction, death


In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce

Belle Sorensen loves men.
She loves them to death . . .

Early in life Belle Sorensen discovers the world is made only for men. They own everything: jobs, property, wives. But Belle understands what few others do: where women are concerned, men are weak.

A woman unhampered by scruples can take from them what she wants. And so Belle sets out to prove to the world that a woman can be just as ruthless, black-hearted and single-minded as any man.

Starting with her long suffering husband Mads, Belle embarks on a killing spree the like of which has never been seen before nor since.

And through it all her kind, older sister Nellie can only watch in horror as Belle’s schemes to enrich herself and cut down the male population come to a glorious, dreadful fruition . . .

🍁 Age / Genre: adult, historical, horror, thriller

🍁 Mood: dark, tense, mysterious, sad

🍁 Pacing: slow

🍁 Content Warnings: miscarriage, murder, child death, gore, infidelity


The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late. 

🍁 Age / Genre: adult, high fantasy

🍁 Mood: adventurous, dark, tense, emotional

🍁 Pacing: medium

🍁 Content Warnings: violence, genocide, rape, drug use, emotional abuse, self-harm


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?

🍁 Age / Genre: adult, thriller, mystery

🍁 Mood: dark, tense, mysterious, adventurous

🍁 Pacing: medium to fast

🍁 Content Warnings: toxic relationship, emotional abuse, infidelity, murder


The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

🍁 Age / Genre: adult, fantasy, sci-fi

🍁 Mood: dark, tense, adventurous, mysterious

🍁 Pacing: slow

🍁 Content Warnings: child death, child abuse, grief


The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

🍁 Age / Genre: adult, contemporary fiction, historical fiction

🍁 Mood: emotional, reflective, mysterious, sad, hopeful

🍁 Pacing: medium

🍁 Content Warnings: domestic abuse, sexual assault, homophobia, biphobia, infidelity, cancer, suicide


Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer

Nita doesn’t murder supernatural beings and sell their body parts on the internet—her mother does that. Nita just dissects the bodies after they’ve been “acquired.” But when her mom brings home a live specimen, Nita decides she wants out — dissecting living people is a step too far.

But when she tries to save her mother’s victim, she ends up sold on the black market in his place — because Nita herself is a supernatural being. Now Nita is on the other side of the bars, and there is no line she won’t cross to escape and make sure no one can ever capture her again.

Nita did a good deed, and it cost her everything. Now she’s going to do a lot of bad deeds to get it all back.

🍁 Age / Genre: young adult, fantasy, horror

🍁 Mood: dark, tense, mysterious, adventurous

🍁 Pacing: medium to fast

🍁 Content Warnings: gore, death, torture, drug use, human trafficking


Pretty Little Wife by Darby Kane

Lila Ridgefield lives in an idyllic college town, but not everything is what it seems. Lila isn’t what she seems. A student vanished months ago. Now, Lila’s husband, Aaron, is also missing. At first these cases are treated as horrible coincidences until it’s discovered the student is really the third of three unexplained disappearances over the last few years. The police are desperate to find the connection, if there even is one. Little do they know they might be stumbling over only part of the truth….

With the small town in an uproar, everyone is worried about the whereabouts of their beloved high school teacher. Everyone except Lila, his wife. She’s definitely confused about her missing husband but only because she was the last person to see his body, and now it’s gone. 

🍁 Age / Genre: adult, thriller, mystery

🍁 Mood: dark, tense, mysterious

🍁 Pacing: medium

🍁 Content Warnings: murder, pedophilia, domestic abuse


Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

🍁 Age / Genre: young adult, historical, fantasy

🍁 Mood: adventurous, dark, tense, mysterious

🍁 Pacing: medium

🍁 Content Warnings: murder, abuse, sexual harassment

Let’s chat!

Have you read any of these novels? Did you like the morally gray / villainous female characters in them? Who are your favorite such characters?

13 thoughts on “Books With Morally Gray and Villainous Female Leads

  1. I love this list!! Thank you for sharing, I love morally grey females !! I hadn’t heard of Sweet Pea before, but I want to check out more for that genre and it definitely appeals. I love how you have included moods of the book and I like the mix of dark and funny when done right. I am also soooooo very excited to finally check out not even bones and the fifth season too !! 😍

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that you made a post about morally grey female characters, as I feel like there’s a lot of focus on male villains most of the time! The Diabolic and Not Even Bones have been on my TBR for ages, I really need to read them!

    I also love Evelyn Hugo so much, she’s such a well-written, complex character! And of course Grave Mercy 🧡

    Liked by 1 person

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