Jilly: Villainous Heroes

Have you ever waited impatiently for a book or series starring a character that you’d previously loathed?

I’ve read a couple of villain-turned hero stories and even blogged about one of them here a few years ago (Grace Burrowes’ 2014 historical The Traitor, starring the baddie from her previous book, The Captive), but I’ve never done the foot-tapping, finger-drumming, calendar-watching book launch thing for a very bad guy before.

It’s Ilona Andrews’ fault. I’ve squeed about their writing here before, once or twice 😉 , but their newest trick leaves me open-mouthed and thinking hard.

According to their blog (link here), the project started in 2015 as an April Fool. They put up a spoof cover and tongue-firmly-in-cheek blurb for a romance starring Hugh d’Ambray, the hard-as-nails enforcer for Roland, the grand antagonist of the bestselling Kate Daniels urban fantasy series. It began as a joke that prompted a deluge of requests that spawned an idea that became a book, and what looks like a whole new series, Iron and Magic.

I’d think it was another April Fool, except they’ve posted footage from the cover shoot, run a title contest, and best of all the blog post I linked to above contains a further link to a long excerpt. It’s really, really good and I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. Judging by the comments (more than 1,400 at the time of writing), I’m not alone.

I’ve read the excerpt a few times now, because I’m fascinated to understand how the authors have managed to establish empathy for such a dark character. It would be easier to understand if the character’s bad deeds were in the past, or somewhat diluted as backstory, or happened to a character we don’t care deeply about, but in Hugh’s case his murdering, torturing and various atrocities have been committed across multiple books, right in front of our eyes, against our heroine Kate Daniels and her community. He should be unforgiveable.

So how have they done it?

Spoilers below, so read the excerpt first if that’s your thing.

The excerpt begins with a prologue that tells us everything we need to know about Hugh’s childhood and his relationship with Roland. I don’t like prologues, but after everything we’ve seen of Hugh I think this one is necessary. He’s been so hateful over so many books that he needs some special pleading immediately.

I think giving him a terrible childhood might have gone a long way to explain his villainy BUT it wouldn’t make him empathetic. What’s utterly brilliant and so totally in tune with the zeitgeist is that we see how easily a vulnerable child was snared and groomed by somebody strong, powerful and charismatic. It’s modern slavery, credible and disturbing. Hugh has always seemed strong and powerful, and now we realise he’s always been a victim. He has never been in control of his own actions, though he probably thought he was.

The prologue made me care about Hugh, but of itself that wouldn’t have made me want to read his story. Here’s what the authors did in the opening pages that made me desperate to read the rest of the story:

  • Put him on a collision course with the man (mage) who groomed him.
  • Started him lower than rock bottom, excised by his mentor, without assets, allies or self-respect.
  • Gave him a goal, an irresistible reason to drag himself back from the brink.
  • Added a community, equally scarred, but with deadly kick-ass skillz.
  • Made him (and them) funny. Black as pitch funny, which is perfect.
  • Forced him into a marriage of convenience with a heroine who’s his equal or stronger.
  • Gave him intelligence, the beginnings of self-knowledge, and maybe even the hint of a noble trait or two.
  • Made him ride an ill-tempered unicorn instead of his trademark black war stallion.

All of that, in a handful of scenes, and I’m hooked. I’d buy the book just for the unicorn.

What do you think?

Have you ever done a complete one-eighty and fallen for a character you’d previously loathed? How did it happen?

4 thoughts on “Jilly: Villainous Heroes

  1. I’d read it just for the unicorn, too!

    I have not ever read anything like this, where a villain over a series becomes the hero in his own book. But in Gallavant (such a different storyline, such a different medium, just.. so different), the villain, who is truly a villain, who steals the kingdom, plots against the rightful king, and so on and so on, has his own love story, and it’s terrific. And he has his own story, so we bond. We like him in spite of everything. Of course, it’s musical comedy, so viewers don’t have as far to go. 🙂

    • I’m pretty sure Bucky (Bucephalus, ha!) is a unicorn. He has a scar on his forehead, and sometimes the air above it shimmers. Sometimes he glows silver. I love him already.

      Galavant! Filmed here, but still not available in the UK 😦 😦 😦

  2. Much less ambitious than what you describe, but Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Sugar Beth Carey starts Ain’t She Sweet pretty unlikeable (she’s verbally abusive to her dog!) and quickly redeems herself simply by having a strong sense of justice and a willingness to admit the wrongs she’s done and accept the payback they bring her.

    Since I’m doing something similar with my third book, trying to convert Lilith from an evil minor character to a protagonist, I may have to read this.

    • Ain’t She Sweet is one of my favorite SEP books. I was thinking about Sugar Beth when I wrote the comment about backstory, because all Sugar Beth’s bad behavior was in the past, so while all the characters have been strongly affected by it, we don’t see it in the now. Since she’s not been back home in decades, nobody knows she’s turned over a new leaf, and she’s too perverse to admit it, so she behaves well while appearing to behave badly. She talks mean to her dog, but she cares for him before she cares for herself. The contrast between her genuine remorse and apparent selfishness is what makes the book fun. Plus, as you say, her willingness to accept some long-overdue payback.

      I think Hugh’s story will be closer to your Lilith challenge, so may be worth a read for you. He’s dragging himself out of the gutter to take on his former mentor, because he owes it to his men. They’re his people, and if he doesn’t do something they’re all going to die because of their association with him. He’s going for payback, not making amends, and if he turns into a good guy, it’s not going to be voluntary. I can’t wait to see what happens.

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