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Vicious by V. E. Schwab


Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in one another. 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. They become EOs, ExtraOrdinaries, leaving a body in their wake and turning on each other.

Ten years later Victor has escaped from prison and is determined to get his revenge on the man who put him there, aided by a young girl with the ability to raise the dead. Eli has spent the years hunting down and killing every EO he can find, convinced that they are a crime against God, all except his sidekick, a woman whose power is persuasion and whom he cannot defy. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?
Vicious is Schwab’s first foray into the world of adult fiction; a superhero novel that doesn’t have a single hero in.

Schwab’s worked that perfectly; for the first half of the novel, we see things from Victor Vale’s viewpoint, one of the protagonists on the novel. He’s presented as an amoral, driven psychopath (literally), with some major issues; Vicious doesn’t pretend to have a hero, as Schwab builds up the image of Vale as a violent horror, a moral black hole – but one with a specific target; while Eli, who sees himself is a hero, is presented as deluded and wrong, with a similar monstrosity to him. Both characters are sadists, violent monsters; but Vale, for his determination and hatred, is a fantastically written one who we sympathise with because of his choice of targets. The rest of the cast are much more likeable, and that creates an interesting dynamic; we watch the impending clash of power not wanting to see the powers survive, but wanting to see their allies live past it. Sydney and Mitch are wonderful characters, Vicious slowly revealing their backgrounds and personalities, the wonderful, caring humans under otherwise exteriors; some really wonderful writing from Schwab makes these characters, who would be in the sidelines but are instead the emotional focus on the narrative.

That narrative is a fantastic one; Vicious combines aspects of a number of genres, in many ways – the revenge drama, the superhero novel, the thriller… and it takes elements of each of those to make a brilliant narrative. Strung between different chronological timelines, moving around among them with ease, Schwab takes on an interesting tour of the past of each of her characters, builds them up, explains why they are how they are – but without justifying that. It’s a delicate balance; the plot has to move forwards on its own, and at times, especially towards the end of the novel, it can feel like Schwab is jumping between characters a little too often for the plot to sustain, but on the whole the movement between characters and times creates an interesting feeling akin to a mosaic novel, where only by standing back can one take in the whole picture and see it as it is meant to be. Schwab does use some frustratingly cliched devices – not having characters explain plans to their allies, keeping readers in the dark to create suspense she knows isn’t really there – that take some of the power away from Vicious, and the pulling of her punches in regard to character death is also frustrating, but all the same, the pace of the plot and its emotional force, given added heft by the character arcs, does work.

Schwab’s worldbuilding is perhaps the most interesting and also least interesting elements of Vicious. In some ways, Merit is an interesting city, which seems to be both an American Midwestern everycity and also to some extent the world; there are other places that appear briefly, but in essense, Merit is the world. That works to some extent, insofar as Gotham works as the world for Batman, but the references to a wider world in Gotham work because it exists; in Merit, the world just doesn’t exist, it is only the subject of vague occasional reference. Similarly, the EOs – ExtraOrdinaries – seem to have had fundamentally no impact on the world; even the police training for dealing with them doesn’t appear to exist, and the EOs have such varied abilities that training to deal with them doesn’t make much sense itself. All this adds up to Schwab appearing lazy in her worldbuilding, a real flaw in an otherwise well-constructed novel.

Vicious isn’t a perfect book – for a start, it’s very straight, male and white; but what Schwab is doing, she does on the whole very well and in a novel with complexities that really make it worth the effort. I recommend it, albeit with some reservations.

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