Vicious, by V.E. Schwab, is another offering in the ever-more popular folks-with-powers genre, and fits as well in the equally popular sub-genre where those folks-with-powers don’t’ fall neatly into the quaint “superhero” mode but have a bit more edge, a bit more (OK, a lot more in this case) grey to them.
Chronologically, the story begins when Victor and Eli, a pair of brilliant college roommates/best friends, devise a theoretical method for creating an “EO”, or an Extra-Ordinary (person with powers) and decide to put theory into action. Their experiment (two separate ones actually) succeeds, but at a horrible cost which includes but is not limited to the severing of their friendship. The two go their own ways, one path — Victor’s — leading to a decade spent in prison and another, well, I won’t spoil that one, but both paths lead to the two in violent, obsessive conflict that will ripple outward onto those nearest them and into the larger society.
I noted this is the chronological story, because Schwab has chosen a non-linear structure for Vicious, beginning with a very recent flashback in a chapter entitled “Last Night,” then leaping back a decade via a chapter called, sensibly, “Ten Years Ago,” and then filling in the gaps as well as catching us up to present time through chapters titled “Two Days Ago,” “Two Weeks Ago,” and so forth. The Third-Person Limited POV also switches throughout. Victor is by far our most frequent narrator, especially through much of the start, with his young “sidekick” Sydney joining in. As Vicious continues, we hear more from Sydney’s point of view, but also from Eli, from another sidekick of Victor’s, and from Sydney’s sister, who ends up allied with Eli.
The structure — multiple POVs and multiple timelines might have been my favorite part of the novel. I liked the stimulation of the shifts, thought Schwab did a mostly good job of using the shifts to create and build tension, and thought the decision to broaden the point of view beyond the two generally (though not fully) unlikable main characters a wise one, especially as the side characters are in many ways far more interesting.
The crux of the novel is the obsessive conflict between Victor and Eli which is really entirely personal, though there are clearly far broader ramifications. This is both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, it does shade them as more grey; neither one can be neatly labeled a superhero or supervillain. It isn’t simply that their actions don’t fall into those neat categories; it’s more that those words — hero and villain — have no meaning in such a personal conflict. They are opposed, but not because one is “doing good” and one is “doing bad,” because one is protecting society and one is abusing it; they’re opposed mostly thanks to a singular event that occurred because of their early experimentation and because of the same sort of petty human qualities that non EOs have all the time: envy, jealousy, etc. The minus comes in because the singular event is a bit flat, at least as presented, a bit underwhelming (though to be fair, that may be part of Schwab’s point) and because Eli’s motivation is somewhat trite, even a bit cheap, though I don’t want to spoil things.
Because this is an obsession for each, the two main characters are, I thought, far less interesting than those others who get caught up in their lives. Eli and Victor are mostly on autopilot. Sure, they’re “grey,” but it’s a grey we’ve seen lots of times by now (one example — the kind of grey where someone is so goal obsessed they risk losing their human perspective) and grey after all isn’t the most exciting of colors. Being grim and an antihero or, yes, grey, doesn’t automatically make you interesting. It certainly didn’t make these two all that interesting.
On the other hand, Scwab does a mostly marvelous job with the “sidekicks”: 12-year-old Sydney, her older sister Serena (whom I found the most complex of them all), Victor’s former cellmate Mitch, all of them EOs and all of them more moving, more complicated, more compelling than the two main characters. I especially loved Schwab’s description of Serena’s unexpected and richly tragic response to a power that most would think could be nothing but wonderful. Though to a somewhat lesser extent, both Sydney and Mitch have that same kind of richness of character that Eli and Victor lack, perhaps purposefully.
The dialogue is sharp and realistic, the prose fluid, smooth, and precise. As are the shifts among time and POV; Schwab seems in complete control of this novel. Pacing is spot on; I don’t recall any moments where things lagged. I felt like I was expected to be a little more impressed with the “greyness” of the two opponents, though that could be all in my head, and in some ways, the book feels a little too familiar in theme. But the execution is so well done — really nailed — and the side characters so richly drawn, that the book’s faults had little impact on the reading experience. Recommended.