By Katy Goodwin-Bates
What is it about fictional villains that gets people so excited? In real-life, when women marry death row inmates or teenagers declare that Donald Trump is a “legend,” the rest of us think there’s something slightly worrying going on. The majority of us don’t celebrate major crimes or quasi-evil pieces of government legislation, and yet vast swathes of Marvel fans prefer Loki to Thor; I would also struggle to tell you how many times I’ve been perplexed by Twitter users proudly proclaiming themselves to be Slytherin (don’t try telling them Hogwarts isn’t real; they won’t believe you). In her introduction to Because You Love to Hate Me, a new YA collection of short stories, Ameriie writes “we love villains because they turn their aches into action, their bruises into battering rams. They push through niceties and against societal constraints to propel the story forward.” It is these powerful qualities of the baddie which come under examination in this anthology, which focuses entirely on villains.
Steven Kemple would not die.
Maybe Steven Kemple wouldn’t die because I knew his real name. So every time I think of him, it’s always Steven Kemple, Steven Kemple, Steven Kemple. All my other victims – Crazy Hat Lady, Camaro Douchebag, Unfriendly Bicycle Meth Head – I just kind of naturally made up their names. This was Iowa, after all, and anonymity here was as rare as an ocean breeze. I preferred not to know anything at all about the strangers who lived on the streets around my house, especially the ones I’d killed. (Julian Breaks Every Rule, by Andrew Smith)
Broadly speaking, the stories here, all by well-known YA authors, can be divided into two categories: retellings and original narratives. An assortment of traditional tales are mined for source material, with Ameriie giving voice to the giant at the top of the beanstalk in Jack, Marissa Meyer revisiting The Little Mermaid to give the sea witch an origin story and Beauty and the Beast receiving a new outlook thanks to April Genevieve Tucholke; of these, Meyer’s is a particularly compelling piece of writing, offering an intriguing parallel with the original fairy tale. Mythology, history and literature also feature, with villain-focused versions of the Camelot legend, Medusa’s origins and a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes. I’m not particularly fond of retellings, as a rule, and some of these fall into generic traps like failing to diverge sufficiently from the well-known story, while others are able to offer a fresh spin on a traditional tale.
Away from retellings, Renee Ahdieh’s The Blood of Imuriv engages immediately with its tale of warring siblings and an evil matriarchy, starting the collection as it means to go on by forcing the reader to question the distinctions between victims and villains. The Blessing of Little Wants produces a similar effect later on with a shock twist. Victoria Schwab, revered author of the Shades of Magic fantasy series, is on top form here with a creepy and deeply atmospheric story that personifies Death as he stalks a young girl during her final hours. It was Schwab’s name that initially drew me to this collection, and Death Knell should give any reader unfamiliar with her work an idea of why. Another highlight is the final story, in which Nicola Yoon presents the reader with a little girl with the qualities of the god of war, wreaking destruction at every turn; with its depiction of parents fearing their child, there’s something of old school Stephen King about Sera, and it ends the anthology on a strong note, accomplishing the same effect as Adam Silvera’s contribution about a teen crime queen in making me wish I was reading a full-length novel rather than just a few pages.
Death is awake, and so he is hungry.
He is hungry, and so he is awake.
He climbs slowly, steadily, out of the deep hole, fingers finding the holds. He swings a thin leg over the side of the well, sits for a drowsy moment on the stone lip.
It is nice to be awake. (Death Knell, by Victoria Schwab)
While multi-authored short story collections are becoming quite commonplace in YA fiction, Because You Love to Hate Me has a unique selling point beyond its focus on villainy; the anthology is billed as a series of collaborations between popular authors and BookTubers. For the uninitiated (of which I am one, in all honesty), a BookTuber is essentially someone who talks about books on a YouTube channel. Apparently, some of them have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Clearly, I am in the wrong game. The central conceit here is that BookTubers have supplied the authors with a prompt for their story – for example, Susan Dennard’s Holmes-based story springs from ‘a young Moriarty,’ while Ahdieh received the somewhat more prescriptive ‘the grandson of an evil, matriarchal dictator who tried to rule over the universe wants to follow in her footsteps and accidentally loses his temper, killing his sibling in a game of chess.’ Not much leeway there, huh. I had a couple of issues with this aspect of the collection. Firstly, each prompt is printed after its corresponding story, which seems a little off to me. Secondly, the BookTubers’ responses to the stories were, at best, varied and, at worst, inconsistent. Some take an analytical approach or even offer a sycophantic review, while others are a little more creative, but in such a way that they’re rather more like the enforced creativity of one of my 13 year old students than a serious literary contribution. For me, these offerings represent a real disjunct in Because You Love to Hate Me, and I found myself skim-reading many of them in order to get to the next story.
Overall, the stories that make up this anthology make it well worth reading. Despite the common theme linking them all, there’s plenty of variety in tone, style, setting and characterisation; the shared premise also allows for fun comparison between the different narratives, and the whole thing works really well as a collection of stories. The additional contributions from BookTubers give Because You Love to Hate Me a different edge and, although it didn’t appeal to me, it’s likely to be a big selling point for those who use YouTube for book recommendations rather than cute kitten videos or clips of Chris Pine on talk shows. Not that I watch those things. Obviously.