The most cut-throat women in books

From the relentlessly competitive to the cold-hearted and cruel, we take a look at some of the most ruthless women in literature.

Whether they're entertainingly ambitious social climbers or the real-life rulers of society's underbelly; arch manipulators with murky motives or survivors made ruthless by a ruthless world, these cut-throat characters refuse to be categorised – but all make for a great read. 

Becky Sharp


by Sarah May

Book cover for Becky

The name Becky Sharp has become synonymous with cynical social climbers, and both William Thackeray's nineteenth-century original and Sarah May's nineties update will stop at nothing in their quest to escape their humble beginnings. In Becky, we find our antihero rising through the ranks of tabloid journalism, becoming more and more involved in every scandal her newspaper publishes and caring less and less about the lives she ruins in the process. Unlike Thackeray, Sarah May gives Becky control of the narrative voice and the first-person perspective gives us an increasingly complicit-feeling front row seat to her compromising machinations and complicated motives.

Lady Macbeth


by William Shakespeare

Book cover for Macbeth

Running horribly close to the gorily literal definition, Lady Macbeth is perhaps the archetypal literary cut-throat woman. Infamously no fan of the "milk of human kindness", she persuades husband Macbeth onto his murderous path and although she doesn't directly cut any throats herself she most definitely has blood on her hands – both real and, as the guilt takes hold, hallucinatory. Shakespeare gives no explicit motive for her ruthless actions, and this combined with the play use of prophesy and the idea of fate, makes her an enigmatic and ultimately deeply conflicted figure, forever locked in a trance, rubbing imagined blood from her hands. 


The Women Could Fly

by Megan Giddings

Book cover for The Women Could Fly

Magic is real, you can be put on trial for witchcraft and women are monitored by the state if not married by thirty, as this is deemed suspicious, potentially witch-like behaviour. When society is this ruthless, is it any wonder a woman might become so too? Josephine Thomas has heard every conceivable theory about her mother, Tiana's, disappearance. At twenty-eight and with her ability to control her own independence now on the line, she is offered one last chance to find out what happened. Did Tiana really abandon her child to live a different kind of life? Or did she meet some other, even more awful fate?

Cheng Chui Ping

The Snakehead

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Book cover for The Snakehead

Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, is the real-life charismatic middle-aged grandmother, who from a tiny noodle shop in New York’s Chinatown, managed a multimillion-dollar people smuggling business. Best-selling author and investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe brings her story to life in this kaleidoscopic crime story and exploration of the ironies of immigration in America. ‘Reads like a mashup of The Godfather and Chinatown, complete with gun battles, a ruthless kingpin and a mountain of cash. Except that it’s all true,’ says Time magazine.


Stone Blind

by Natalie Haynes

Book cover for Stone Blind

It's hard to imagine a woman more merciless than the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and War. When Poseidon rapes Medusa in Athene's temple, the goddess is so determined to get her revenge she takes it wherever she can, targeting Medusa for the deconsecrating act despite her being the real victim. Athene's ruthless cruelty is relieved only by Natalie Haynes's repositioning of the entire Medusa myth, which makes her much more than just a bit part in someone else's story and makes us properly appreciate how badly she is treated. Medusa is not a monster, she is treated monstrously, by Perseus, by Poseidon, and by the cut-throat Athene. 


People Like Her

by Ellery Lloyd

Book cover for People Like Her

Emmy Jackson makes her living as Instagram mumfluencer extraordinaire Mamabare and, as her increasingly perturbed husband is beginning to realise, there is little she won't do to feed the social media machine she has built their lives around. But when her ruthless drive for 'content' indirectly results in tragedy, she finds herself up against an anonymous stalker who will do literally anything for revenge. It's often said that you can never know the truth about someone you follow online, but can they ever really know the truth about their followers?

Elizabeth Holmes

Bad Blood

Book cover for Bad Blood

You've seen the TV drama. You've heard the podcast. Now read the shocking saga of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal written by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story. From the 'female Steve Jobs' to a double-figure prison sentence, this is a tale of cut-throat ambition and massive corporate fraud.


The Atlas Six

by Olivie Blake

Book cover for The Atlas Six

Being both beautiful and a literal mind-reader really helps if you're the manipulative sort, and Parisa uses both sex and her telepathic powers to get what she wants. One of six unbelievably talented magicians fighting for a place in the Alexandrian Society and a lifetime of power and prestige, her difficult past has made ruthlessness a necessity. Determined to keep her independence and trusting no-one, she is as unsparing with herself as she is with others, putting herself in real danger as a means to her survival-instinct ends.