1 of 21
320 pages; G.P. Putnam's Sons
Judith, the femme fatale  of L.S. Hilton's hotly anticipated thriller Maestra, is as ruthless  as they come. She steals art, poisons a friend, dismembers a cop, and—oh, the inhumanity—has sex purely for pleasure, or at least for the pleasure  of dominating. Her carnal villainy has already led to a plum film deal for Hilton, comparisons to Gone Girl, and the water cooler question: Is she not just a bad woman, but bad for women? The more apt question, however, may be this: What makes a woman who'll do anything to get what she wants so threatening...and thrilling?

Answers vary depending on what doomed bloke finds himself in Judith's cross hairs. In the opening pages, that man is her boss at a British auction house, who dismisses her for revealing a painting to be a fake. He expects her to do what young assistants do when they're sacked—sob into a Bankers Box of belongings and slink home. But Judith flips the script, embarking on a globe-spanning journey of reinvention, high-class orgies, and, at the right moment, revenge.

Finally, though, it's Judith's  modes of retaliation that make her  a radical heroine. She deploys a uniquely female arsenal—spiking a cocktail with diet pills, gagging a man with a maxi pad, placating a pair of bodyguards by appearing nude in high heels—weaponizing femininity. Deadlier still is her ferociously modern ability to identify the rules of the rigged game we're all playing and exploit them. She bats her lashes onto a billionaire's yacht, understanding that society values beauty over authenticity. She doe-eyes her way through an interrogation, too waiflike to be culpable. And when it comes time to pilfer the painting that ended her career, she knows that even as  its owner bleeds out, he won't comprehend how his wealth could render a female anything other  than docile.

Yes, Judith is cruel to the point of repulsion and should be avoided by readers averse to violence and those wishing to eat sea urchin without sexual connotation. But for the rest  of us, it's hard not to feel vicariously empowered by a woman unapologetically in pursuit. Let's call her the Sheryl Sandberg of sociopaths, leaning in to the hilt.  

— Natalie Beach