Because even when you're trying to get your hands on books about thieves, murderers, scoundrels, mayhem, and more, you've got to play by the rules.
Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy, is a short story collection edited by R&B superstar and BookTuber Ameriie (which is one of the most bad-ass LinkedIn descriptions I've ever heard). Comprised of the works of thirteen published YA professionals and thirteen YouTubers, the social media super-fans were tasked with posing prompts from which the authors would design and create a new take on a classic villainous trait, origin, or figure. Each short story is paired with a response or addition from the YouTuber who helped spark the idea, and gives greater context to the worlds in which these characters came to life, or the ways they interact with the status of villainy in our own world. From bonafide baddies like Moriarty and Medusa, to competitive siblings grappling for royal power, to the personification of war in the form of a fourteen-year-old girl, no one villain is like another... and they're a far cry themselves from the fairy tales, myths, legends, and more, that you thought you knew, too.
Due to the sheer caliber of talent involved in the project - and the participation of some of my favorite BookTubers, too! - I couldn't wait to get my hands on this collection... and I know I wasn't the only one. This has probably been on every single "Most Anticipated" list I've seen in the past year, and its coming was heralded over quite a bit of social media (which was, of course, to be expected).
While I didn't end up being overwhelmed by the sum total of the collection, there were definitely individual standouts. Marissa Meyer, author of the Lunar Chronicles series, received a prompt from Zoe Herdt (of readbyzoe) that played to her strengths, calling for a little more intriguing backstory to the classic Sea Witch character from The Little Mermaid. My personal favorite BookTuber, Regan Perusse (of theperuseproject) tasked Samantha Shannon, author of the Bone Season series, with creating a compelling retelling of the Erl Queen tales, only in 19th-century London. And Jesse George (at jessethereader) handed one of my favorite fantasy authors, Victoria Schwab, what I thought was probably the best prompt of the bunch, with Death waking up at the bottom of a well in Ireland.
Of course, there were some stories that fell a little flat, too. Whether it was because they seemed to be more focused on retaining a strictly YA voice - like keeping things too contemporary, or leaving emotion at more surface levels instead of diving deeper into the characterizations - or just didn't take advantage of their (admittedly brief) space to make a lot of character impact, for every great short story, there was one that was just average, and another that was a little less than a chore to read. To be perfectly honest, I skimmed through a couple.
I also sped-read through the various commentaries that some of the YouTubers posed. While I think it was a nice concept - giving the fans who had initiated the concepts in the first place the opportunity to thematically respond to the work itself - in the end, the majority of them felt like either a throwaway Buzzfeed article, or worse, a half-hearted book report. Very few of them actively contributed to the larger presence of the story they'd helped create as a whole.
The stories themselves were, of course, the obvious stars here. The fact that the collection was intended for YA audiences lent a distinctly feminist take to some of the stories, whether that was due to the dimension and background not typically granted to female villains, given through additional context - like with the Sea Witch story from Meyer, or a Medusa retelling courtesy of Serpentine author Cindy Pon - or even the deliberate manipulation of setting and story to make a marked statement of female empowerment, like Samantha Shannon's Erl Queen in "Marigold."
However, while I feel that there was attention paid to the women's empowerment side of feminism, there wasn't a lot done for the sake of representing diversity. The Medusa retelling (written by, may I remind you, Cindy Pon, a co-founder of the Diversity in YA movement, and an advisor for We Need Diverse Books), and Shannon's "Marigold" are two of the only stories I can name off the top of my head from the collection which made the specific point of including non-white characters... and yes, there was a mermaid, a giant, and even an alien race in this collection, too, so there definitely could have been more of an effort to emphasize diversity.
Additionally, after all of the LGBT-friendly YA I've been reading this summer, I was a little shocked that none of the stories attempted to incorporate that particular point of diversity either.
(Side note: while the point could be raised that it might not be in the best intentions to advocate for more LGBT characters in what is ostensibly a collection of villains, there were plenty of non-villainous characters - and romance! - involved, as well. The reason this is even a point I brought up, is because of a short story that generates a relationship between boarding school students Jim Moriarty and Shirley Holmes... and when you work that hard to change the gender of the world's most famous detective, it just comes off as a little heteronormative. If the recent runaway success of "In a Heartbeat" shows us anything, it's that the world is more than okay with a sweet romance between two boys in blazers. And if an author could make Sherlock Holmes a girl, any of them could have easily flipped the genders of plenty of other characters in these works, too.)
Overall, the collection itself only felt like a taster. For some of the stories, I hope their authors branch them out more, taking them further and using them as the basis for some of their next work, because let's be real: they were so good! On the other hand, for others, it just felt like they were reaching for an idea they never quite got a firm hold on.
So here's my pitch: I'd love Ameriie to take some of those great stories, and curate a larger collection of villainous novellas those shorts could become. I'd also like her to keep posing these kinds of new and interesting challenges, perhaps even to up-and-coming writers, rather than established factors in the industry. There are just so many directions this project could be taken, I sincerely hope it gets pushed further, because let's be real: it feels so good to be bad.
Final Verdict: A fun and brief read, giving reason for favorite authors to stretch their writing styles and subjects in a new and interesting direction. I really hope Ameriie curates another grouping of short stories soon, because her editorial challenge was the thing that ended up generating such a fascinating collection in the first place.
What's your favorite short story collection? What villainous figure would you like to see undergo a literary makeover? Let me know, in the comments below!