If living well is the best revenge, Jo in Kim Savage’s In Her Skin is doing it right. She’s escaped her mother’s murderous ex-boyfriend and is living large in Boston’s luxurious Back Bay. She just has to keep pretending to be Vivienne Weir, the missing ward of the wealthy Lovecrafts and their daughter, Temple. Easy, right? Not when the Lovecrafts have secrets of their own that threaten to destroy the illusion of their family—and maybe Jo herself. To celebrate the release of In Her Skin, Savage is sharing her favorite YA novels that do revenge right.
Revenge is a theme older than time. Consider Euripides’ Medea or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Or Titus Andronicus and those meat pies made of his enemies (shiver). Like any good pie, some revenge plots rise above the rest. Here are my favorite YA novels featuring revenge that you’ll want to add to your TBR ASAP.
Trained assassin Oleander “Lea” Saldana has fallen in love with rival assassin Val Da Via. This is a lousy idea when your families are sworn enemies; it’s a worse idea when you suspect his family has killed yours in a fire. Lovero is richly imagined as a land where the God of Death is worshipped and the lines of religion, law, and duty are uncrossable. But it’s in the evolution of Lea’s character that the novel shines. What happens when a person with the most defensible reason for revenge has doubts? You’ll have to read Assassin’s Heart to find out.
Speaking of defensible reasons reasons for revenge: Try living in the Southern town of Ranburne, where football players rule and the result is an epically uneven playing field. The members of Rachael Allen’s oddball female foursome each have their own reasons for wanting to take down the patriarchy. They’ve been subjected to slut-shaming, virgin-shaming, ambition-shaming, and image-shaming, to name a few. A payback plan ensues. Allen’s story is equal parts hilarious and deeply touching, and it begs the question: Why must we live in a world where girls are shamed at all?
This story features more mean girls and another southern town, but with totally different stakes. After Olivia’s brother dies, her friend, Adrienne, sleeps with her boyfriend. Olivia decides to seek revenge on Adrienne, setting off a life-changing chain of events. How to Break a Boy is a deliciously dark book about what revenge does to those who seek it. Consequences, people.
In the opening of Vengeance Road, Kate tells a bartender, “I got coin and vengeance strong enough to cut any throat that tries to cross me right now.” That’s because she found her Pa hanging from a mesquite tree. Moreover, his journal is missing, and it contains directions to a secret gold mine. It might be revenge against her father’s killers that keeps Kate going, but unlikely friendships—and a slow-burn, well-drawn romance—are what make this book dazzle. Like the best Westerns, Vengeance Road is brutal and pitch-perfect in its depiction of the “noblest” kind of revenge.
Cory made a pact with mythological deities, the Furies, who drive her to track down and kill the world’s worst, but only at night. During the day, Cory is a normal high schooler, and it’s then she meets Niko, who proves to be a romantic complication. What’s fascinating about Vengeance Bound is the way Justina Ireland uses the Furies, through Cory, to explore our potential for humanity after years of trauma.
Confession: Psychological thrillers are my jam. I don’t just write them; I read them. Here, a car accident in Italy has killed Jill’s best friend, Simone. Jill is an amnesiac, and, possibly, an unreliable narrator. We know this because not only do we get her version of events, but we also get to read newspaper articles, social media posts, police interviews, and emails about the sensational accident. Was Simone’s death an accident, or was it murder? As Jill’s memories surface and the threat of her extradition to Italy looms, the reader starts to wonder, was revenge at play? You’ll have to wait until the end to find out in this bendy thriller.
Second confession: Election is one of my all-time favorite movies. Winning reads like Election meets every Disney movie ever made. This is a good thing. Winning is clever as heck, with writing that crackles and a whip-smart protagonist whom you can’t hate because she’s such a badass. Alexandra Miles will be crowned homecoming queen at any cost, and when threatened by a newcomer who poses a threat, it’s go-time, with help from her loyal friend, Sam. The revenge in Winning comes when tables turn, which is both unexpected and totally satisfying.
Final confession: I am a freak for Charles Dickens. Meredith Moore’s novel is a contemporary retelling of Great Expectations set in Yorkshire, England. Vivian has been trained by her mother to exact revenge for having her heart broken decades before by the billionaire maker of a digital doll company (yes, all the metaphors are this cheeky). Her target is the son, and she’s entered a creepy boarding school with the intent of seducing him and breaking his heart. Complications arise. Moore’s retelling shows revenge at its most wickedly delicious.
This masterful retelling of Don Quixote has it all: the brilliant characterizations, the humor, the pathos, and an unusual love triangle, with… wait for it… a revenge plot! Pancho sets off to avenge the murder of his sister, which brings him to the orphanage where he meets D.Q. D.Q. has brain cancer, and is in love with the intoxicating Marisol. DQ introduces Pancho to the Death Warrior Manifesto, sort of a bucket list to live your fullest life in the time you have left. Pancho has to decide whether to avenge his sister, or to follow D.Q.’s lead and become a warrior of another kind. To seek revenge, or not to seek revenge, is the question.
The Sharp Time is a quiet novel about revenge, which makes it an exception on this list. That’s not to say it isn’t powerful. Sandinista Jones has had a rough time of it: Her mother died in a car accident, and she’s left school after an incident with a teacher who chides her for not paying attention (she has ADD). Sandinista relives her own traumas and a desire for revenge stirs, especially toward authority figures, who have done her wrong time and time again. Mary O’Connell surrounds Sandinista with a vivid set of secondary characters who provide her with friendship and stability. The most important of these is a boy with whom she has a platonic (for once!) relationship. The Sharp Time is a gorgeous exploration of the power of friendship to redeem us from a bad path.
Very different twins—one extroverted (Joy), one introverted (Grace)—go to a party. Before the night is over a boy, Adam, ends up dead, falling off a quarry cliff (I have a thing for quarries). Joy starts receiving notes threatening to expose her secret. Did she kill Adam? Details of that night are fuzzy. Someone wants revenge for Adam’s murder, and Laura Tims keeps you guessing who until the very end.
What are your favorite YA novels that showcase this best/worst human impulse? Were you with the revenge seeker—an eye for an eye!—or did you feel more like Francis Bacon, who compared revenge to a weepy wound that never heals? Let me know in the comments. Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking about how to incorporate pie into my next novel. Mmm.
Kim Savage writes psychological thrillers that sometimes involve revenge plots and always leave you whiplashed. She is the author of three critically acclaimed young adult novels, After the Woods, Beautiful Broken Girls (named by Kirkus as one of the 10 Best YA of 2017), and In Her Skin (releasing April 17, 2018), all with Farrar, Straus, Giroux/Macmillan. Her novels have been published in Spain, Brazil, and Turkey, and have been optioned for TV. Kim is a former reporter with a Master’s degree in Journalism, and she lives with her husband and three children near the real Middlesex Fells Reservation of After the Woods. You can follow Kim on Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter, and visit her at kimsavage.me.