The best SFF books where no one is the “good guy”

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by morally grey characters. One of the things I find so fascinating about them is their unpredictability. You can always count on a knight in shining armor to do the right thing. Captain America will always make the sacrifice play. That doesn’t mean they’re not great characters… it just makes it a little harder for them to surprise us. When everyone is kind of a “bad guy” in a story, it makes things doubly fascinating because you simultaneously want to root for everyone and no one. That was my goal in writing Among Thieves: for readers to have no idea who they wanted to “win” in the end. 


I wrote...

Among Thieves

By M.J. Kuhn,

Book cover of Among Thieves

What is my book about?

Ryia ‘the Butcher’ Cautella has earned her reputation as the deadliest blade in the city – not to mention the sharpest tongue. But Ryia Cautella is not her real name.

A deadly secret has kept Ryia on the run, doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the formidable Guildmaster – sovereign ruler of the five kingdoms. But even the most powerful men can be defeated. One last job stands between Ryia and her freedom – but she can’t do it alone. She teams up with a crew of miscreants, smugglers, and thieves to attempt an impossible heist on the most tightly guarded island in the kingdoms – the Guildmaster’s stronghold. Unfortunately for Ryia, her new allies are all planning betrayals of their own...

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Lies of Locke Lamora

By Scott Lynch,

Book cover of The Lies of Locke Lamora

Why this book?

I first read The Lies of Locke Lamora in high school and I fell in love with the story immediately. The story follows a group of young thieves scamming their way through a Venice-inspired fantasy city. The characters follow the first half of Robinhood’s rules: They steal from the rich… but they keep their haul instead of giving it away to the poor. They’re not squeaky clean, but they are lovable. Their motivations aren’t necessarily pure, but they are believable. The story takes a dark turn when a larger threat looms, threatening to end life as the gang knows it. Our crew then has to run an elaborate heist to trick a dangerous and brilliant villain. 

The Lies of Locke Lamora gets top billing on my list for two main reasons. Firstly, the sequel, Red Seas Over Red Skies, is the book that dragged me out of my post-university reading slump, paving the way for me to love books all over again. Secondly, The Lies of Locke Lamora was a direct inspiration for my own heist book. Tl;dr: Without this book, I might never have actually started writing novels myself.


Autonomous

By Annalee Newitz,

Book cover of Autonomous

Why this book?

Autonomous is a thought-provoking cyberpunk story that takes place in a near-future society where Big Pharma pretty much runs the show. Our main character, Jack, makes dupes of expensive prescription drugs, selling them on the black market. Even though her goal is arguably pretty noble (selling expensive drugs to poorer citizens on the cheap), the story follows the consequences that ensue when she starts selling a black market drug that gives users horrific and life-threatening side effects. 

Our other main characters are a military-grade AI-powered robot and a member of the armed forces who are tasked with chasing down the drug pirate responsible for this catastrophe. These two track down clues to lead them to Jack’s hideout, all while she tries to find a medical solution to the problems she’s caused. 

None of the characters in Autonomous are particularly likable. All of them are jam-packed with absolutely deal-breaking flaws, but their motivations feel real and visceral, and the exploration of the morality associated with AI will leave you thinking about this book for weeks after you’ve finished it. 


Ninth House

By Leigh Bardugo,

Book cover of Ninth House

Why this book?

Ninth House is not a light, fun read. If you’re interested in picking it up because you’re a fan of Ms. Bardugo’s other work, be warned: This book is dark. Trigger warnings include sexual assault, drug use, overdoses, violent homicide, and more. 

The story follows a scarred and emotionally bruised young woman named Alex who narrowly escapes a world of violence and drug abuse when she is recruited to join one of the prestigious secret societies at an Ivy League university, Yale. While there, Alex learns that these secret societies are involved in occult activities, violent crimes, and more. As you read through the story, you’ll find that all the characters are riddled with flaws. No one is the “good guy,” but I definitely rooted for—and against—several characters, and the mysteries of the story kept me turning pages furiously. 


This Savage Song

By Victoria Schwab,

Book cover of This Savage Song

Why this book?

I’m a fan of V. E. Schwab’s writing in general, but This Savage Song is my personal favorite story of theirs. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a main character as unlikeable as Kate Harker. The daughter of a kingpin who rules over a city where monsters are real, Kate is ruthless and rebellious. As the city threatens to burst into an all-out war, Kate has to team up with another main character—one of the monsters. 

The writing in This Savage Song is lyrical and punchy at the same time, making it a quick and compelling read. If you’re looking for a story where everyone is a villain in their own way, set in a world with a fascinating magic system that turns violence into actual living, breathing monsters, you’ll want to give this one a read.


The Kingdom of Liars: A Novel volume 1

By Nick Martell,

Book cover of The Kingdom of Liars: A Novel volume 1

Why this book?

The Kingdom of Liars follows a man named Michael Kingman, the son of a traitor to the crown. The main character’s father was accused of murdering the king’s nine-year-old son, obviously making him unpopular and unwelcome in high society. Michael is petty and self-serving, taking low-level jabs at a world that’s rejected him. When he’s offered the chance to get back into the court, he jumps at it, accidentally uncovering some dark secrets as he does.

This book is great for a number of reasons, but one of the things I love about it is the magic system. In The Kingdom of Liars, the price of using magic is some of your memories. This adds a fun wrinkle to the story, making it hard for our morally grey, magic-wielding characters to trust anything: Even their own memory.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in family secrets, good and evil, and robots?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about family secrets, good and evil, and robots.

Family Secrets Explore 83 books about family secrets
Good And Evil Explore 68 books about good and evil
Robots Explore 60 books about robots

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Lord of the Rings, Infomocracy, and Mistress of the Empire if you like this list.