Traditional heroes inspire us to be our best selves, but anti-heroes let us ask the question: what if we weren’t? What decisions might a protagonist make if they were led by darker motivations like greed or revenge or power? It’s no wonder we’re enthralled by anti-heroes, and lucky for us, YA is filled with excellent morally grey protagonists who may—or may not—be redeemed in the end.
Anti-Heroes That You’ll Find Yourself Rooting For
1. Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
Sorcery of Thorns fans agree on one thing—Silas, the snarky demon with a secret heart of gold, is an absolute legend. He’s bound to the magician Nathaniel, which means that he is sustained by Nathaniel’s life force in exchange for providing Nathaniel with magic. Nathaniel consented to this arrangement as a boy, and against all odds, Silas and Nathaniel have a close and loving friendship. Silas usually takes the form of a white cat, and you don’t want to stick around when he unleashes his true form.
2. A Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley
Tamsin is a witch, and she provides helpful spells and potions for her fellow villagers. The catch? The only currency she accepts is the villagers’ love for their friends, partners, parents, and even their own children. That love allows Tamsin to feel something for a fleeting period of time before her world turns flat and grey again. It’s hard to imagine a character like this would be anything other than a villain, but a quest with the sweet Wren by her side just might lead to some relief from the sinister cycle in which she’s found herself. In short, Tamsin is the grumpy one who is soft for the sunshine one.
3. The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid
Nemesis is not your average heroine. She was created for one purpose only: to be a perfect bodyguard for a galactic senator’s daughter and, if necessary, kill for her without hesitation. Raised to be aggressive, ruthless, and menacing to everyone except her charge, Nemesis thinks she is prepared for anything. Until she has to switch places with the senator’s daughter and masquerade in her likeness amongst corrupt politicians. One wrong move could reveal her true vicious nature—but Nemesis is starting to believe there might be more humanity in her than anyone ever expected.
4. Night Shine by Tessa Gratton
The characters in Night Shine make choices that best fit their goals at the time, but they are not always choices that one would call “good” or “right.” Nothing, an orphan girl who lives in the palace, sets out on a quest to save her close friend the prince from The Sorceress Who Eats Girls—a sorceress who has her own POV chapters and love story arc. If you like your heroes magical, mythical, and morally grey, you have found your next read.
5. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai are heirs of rival gangs in 1926 Shanghai, and you can’t get much more anti-hero than organized crime lord. Juliette in particular is a refreshing departure from a traditional heroine—she’s prickly, aloof, and merciless, and we love her for it. But while the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers scheme for control of Shanghai, a greater, more monstrous threat looms over all of them. When Roma and Juliette are forced to work together, they will have to put aside their complicated past and cooperate for once. Easier said than done for two hardened gangsters. Kaz Brekker who?
6. Scythe by Neal Shusterman
This entire series is focused on anti-heroes being anti-heroes for and against each other. Citra and Rowan join the order of the Scythes, a group of people tasked with administering death in this futuristic reality in which aging is optional. They are supposed to be the most morally upstanding people of all, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Not to mention, Scythe Lucifer is the ultimate anti-hero that you’ll root for even as he makes some morally grey choices. This series does the anti-hero trope like nothing you’ve ever read—you won’t be able to put it down!
7. Cursed by Thomas Wheeler and Frank Miller
This retelling of the King Arthur legend features a strong female lead. It’s hard to say whether Nimue or the sword itself is the real anti-hero of this story—but either way, you won’t be able to root against them. Nimue is inspiring, passionate, and filled with compassion. Her determination to save her people gets her into some trouble, but you just know her heart is in the right place.
8. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
In this enthralling novel, you’ll meet Bree and Nick, two teens hoping to uncover dark secrets by infiltrating the society of Legendborn, who are descendants of King Arthur’s knights. Where Nick, at first glance, is the classic golden-boy hero, his foil is Selwyn, the mysterious Merlin who doesn’t seem to like Bree’s presence, especially where Nick is involved. However, as you read this book, it’ll be almost impossible for you to NOT root for Sel, who gives off some serious Loki vibes.