My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 368 pages
Release date: 24 September 2013
Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.
Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?
“Victor was out. Victor was free.
And Victor was coming for Eli–just as he’d promised he would.”
Wow. I’m blown away.
For the longest time I was put off reading Vicious thanks to its strange, unspecific premise. I should have known after my experience with the Monsters of Verity duology that if anyone could pull off this subversive premise, it would be V.E. Schwab. A cross of Frankenstein and X-Men, Vicious is a delightfully edgy tale of antivillains, antiheroes and the tensions that run between them.
The novel centres on Victor Vale and Eliot Cardale (pseudonym Eli Ever), and the relationship between the two is everything. Friends turned arch-nemeses by a cocktail of jealousy, ambition and hatred, the evolution of their dynamic is absolutely fascinating to read. Vicious explores both stages in detail, alternating between the timelines of the present day and ten years ago for much of the book. It’s the ultimate villain origin story, packed with enough explosive twists and dramatic confrontations to satisfy the most impatient reader with an appreciation of superhero flicks.
“Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.”
Both main characters are fleshed out convincingly, their descents into their present merciless states charted with chilling clarity. Their relationships with Sydney and Serena, not to mention the interactions between Sydney and Serena themselves, are criminally undersold in the synopsis. Taking advantage of Victor, Eli, Sydney and Serena all being dysfunctional EOs–ExtraOrdinarys, this book’s term for superpowered people–Schwab writes a logical and fresh interplay of superpowers that puts an unconventional spin on well-tread ground. There are no power scaling issues brought about by an overly eager author making favoured characters too strong and no plot holes along the lines of “why couldn’t they have just done xyz.” After all, deluded as they may be, Victor and Eli are both brilliant and not afraid to remind you of the fact every now and then.
In particular the second act of the novel, aptly titled One Extraordinary Day, is phenomenal. The finale is a fitting payoff to some 200 pages of setting the stage, a climatic clash between former best friends and blood sisters irreparably separated by betrayal. You don’t want to miss it.
If novelists were serial killers, Schwab is the last one I’d want coming after me. This woman writes the most creative things, and rarely with a happy result. I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a bank of thousands of ways to murder, mutilate, maim and torture by words. Fortunately, her talent doesn’t stop with mere mechanical creativity. Many authors can write a great deal of ingenious violence, but few can infuse it with genuine emotional depth the way Schwab does. Vicious‘s extensive physical and psychological cruelty isn’t glorified and it certainly isn’t gratuitous–it’s a window, albeit a painful one, into the characters who inflict as well as receive it.
Vicious‘s long-awaited sequel Vengeful is arriving soon, and with it comes the series name of Villains. Villains is damn right: If there are any true heroes in Vicious, they’ll be corrupted soon. In Schwab’s twisted world you don’t root for the good guy, you root for the least of several evils. Vicious makes you sympathise with Victor (who I admit I’m partial to myself) over Eli, but the sequel promises to do the opposite. No small task, as Eli is despicable in the first book. Luckily for us, no one can turn preconceptions on their head like Schwab.
Satisfying twists, engaging reveals and a powerful emotional base make V.E. Schwab one of the most talented speculative writers active today. Whether it’s on the lawless streets of Verity or the skyscrapers of Merit, she knows how to rip out the heartstrings. I’ll be first in line for a copy of Vengeful, and after that it’ll be time to hunker down and sob as I stare at the nonexistent cover of The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue.