If you’re anything like me, the current state of the world might have unlocked a wellspring of rage you didn’t realize you had. Maybe your shower-time, falling asleep, ruminating on the road fantasies have turned violent. Maybe you can’t consume the news. Or maybe you consume it obsessively, the adrenaline building in your system until you want to punch something. Maybe you’re craving, wishing more powerfully than you’ve ever wished, that magic is real and you were a fire or storm or lava witch, because you have some ideas.
Oh, just me? Okay.
All this rage has me thinking about the angry, powerful female characters I’ve collected, the stories of girls and women who rage, who change their worlds. Maybe you need these stories as much as I do. Last week I wrote these all down, the stories I’ve read in the past few years that are feeding my soul right now.
I don’t remember the details of each book well enough to be sure, so you should probably consider them all labeled with a content warning for sexual abuse/violence.
Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.
But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.
Because I can’t take another dead girl.
In a world where women and girls are killed for “honor,” killed for saying no, killed just because they dared to be alone outside, Sadie is a call to action. We can’t take another dead girl. What do we need to change to make this stop?
Alex is a murderer (vigilante–same thing). That’s not a spoiler–she tells you so very early on, frequently repeating, “This is how I kill someone.” As a mantra goes, it’s powerful. While this book as a whole is important and powerful, Alex is the hook that kept me reading. She is dark and violent without becoming a stereotype. She is capable of making friends and falling in love, although that capacity isn’t initially apparent. In Alex, McGinnis crafted a believably violent girl, a teenage vigilante who embodies the best and worst strength of the female of the species.
While most girls don’t turn to murder, I think many girls (me among them) will recognize Alex’s rage. When confronted with double standards, casual sexism, and rape/abuse culture, we seethe, the perpetrators protected only by social convention. Exploring that rage felt (perhaps wrongly?) very cathartic.
Also there’s the iconic scene where Alex reflects on the spectacle of a boy humping a basketball in gym class. The other students are laughing at his “clowning around.”
I wonder what would happen if I went down there, took a ball out of the cage, and pretended to have sex with it. I think people would stop and look. I think the whole gym would come to a standstill and teachers would definitely interfere. There would be discussions (again) about what exactly is wrong with me that I would do such a thing. I would definitely log some more hours in the guidance office.
But ‘boys will be boys,’ our favorite phrase that excuses too many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is ‘women,’ said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.
I read Circe last month and haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet. Circe, the minor goddess who enchants and uses men, of course has a captivating story. Madeline Miller captures the breadth of female humanity in a stunning way, with lines that will stop you in your tracks and a command of language that will make you despair ever calling yourself a writer (seriously).
Circe will fight for herself, for humanity, for the refuge she has found, for her dreams. She fights with everything she has, and somehow a minor goddess becomes EveryWoman.
Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue
Kristin Cashore’s three related books feature different but equally compelling female main characters, each of whom is fighting to find herself. Cashore recently shared how some of the themes and characters in the book were inspired (such a positive word for a horrible thing) by her experiences with Catholicism and Catholic priests. If some of your pent-up rage is reserved for religion or religious people, these books will likely resonate deeply.
Where do I begin with Deerskin? Robin McKinley is a sorceress with words, and brave enough to tackle a very old tale that deals with incest. This story is not for the faint of heart, and if you think it will be hurtful or triggering, pick something else. But it is a uniquely honest fairytale of a girl healing from an especially horrific violation.
The Language of Thorns
Leigh Bardugo’s collection of tales turn fables and fairy tales on their heads, and offers plenty of anger and mythology.
Another recent read that I haven’t yet published a review for, Spinning Silver is a multi-layered work of genius focused on girls who are determined to live in a world that is not kind to them. They’re willing to do battle with family, nature, and demons to save themselves, their loved ones, and each other.
The Nowhere Girls
If you read Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent story about the catastrophically ill-handled rape of Amber Wyatt, you know the premise of The Nowhere Girls.
“Grace wants nothing more than to be invisible at her new school, but when she learns that Lucy Moynihan, the former occupant of her new home, was run out of town after accusing the popular guys at school of gang rape, she convinces Rosina and Erin to join her mission to get justice for Lucy. They form an anonymous group of girls at Prescott High to resist the sexist culture at their school, which includes boycotting sex of any kind with the male students. As the Nowhere Girls grow in numbers, their movement becomes about more than sex and transforms the lives of its members, their school, and the entire community.”
A Thousand Nights
This retelling of A Thousand and One Nights focuses on the power of women to protect and support each other, to unlock their own power, and to destroy monsters. It is at once both brutal and kind, powerful and healing.
This thriller from producer and writer Krysten Ritter investigates the dark ways people become entangled in hurting each other. Like some others on this list, a major element of the story is a missing girl. I especially appreciate how this book shows the main character struggling with her own hometown experiences and scars.
This is one of the early angry girls and, as it turns out, the only one on the list who is written by a man. If you’re feeling drawn to women who take their rage out on a man’s flesh, this is a good trilogy for you. Extremely explicit, consider it flagged with all the content warnings.