Vicious: Beautifully exploits the concept of the ambiguous superhero

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Reposting to include Tadiana’s new review:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsVicious by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsVicious by V.E. Schwab

Note: Find “Warm Up,” a short-story introduction to Vicious, for free at Tor.com. You can also purchase it for 99c on Kindle.

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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsChronologically, 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.

~Bill Capossere


Vicious by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsThere was once a time when being the superhero meant being the good guy. Then The Watchmen and shows like Heroes blurred those lines and shed a whole load of doubt on what it meant to be a superhero. Gone were the days of Stan Lee’s warning that “With great power comes great responsibility.” V.E. Schwab’s Vicious exploits the concept of the ambiguous superhero beautifully, as she once more turns convention on its head to give us something quirky and original that will have you gripped from the get-go.

Our story opens in a cemetery. Victor is sweeping over the graves with a shovel on his shoulder. His unlikely accomplice is a teenage girl: Sydney. Though she’s a little on the small side, Sydney looks like any other average thirteen year old would. Except that Sydney has been killed, and (to add insult to injury) shot as well. And another thing, Sydney can bring the dead back to life. Because like Victor, Sydney is an EO – an Extra Ordinary (note the capitals) person; a person with super powers.

Flash back ten years, and the story gradually unfurls. Victor attends college with Eli. They are both brilliant students. Whilst Victor chooses to research adrenaline for his thesis, Eliot chooses the topic of EOs. The subjects are strangely interlinked: to become an EO you need to have a giant influx of adrenaline. Eliot soon becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming an EO. The caveat? You have to die first.

Flip back to the present day and Victor is fresh out of jail with sidekick Mitch (ex-cellmate) and tag-along Sydney, and an eclectic bunch they make. It turns out that Eli is the reason Victor spent ten years locked up, and this is one of the brilliant ways that Schwab sustains tension throughout the novel. The story would not have packed half the punch had it been told chronologically. Schwab gradually fills in the gaps, letting the reader know the twisted and bloody past that led two best friends to become enemies and why Victor is so intent on finding Eli.

And Eli is on a mission of his own. He is gradually tracking down all the EOs he can find, and what he does when he finds them is not exactly heroic. He’s found a side-kick himself: the enigmatic Serena, who is by far one of the most interesting and rounded characters of the novel. She is conflicted and self-interested, and easily has the coolest power: to compel people to do exactly what she wants. Her history is much more tangled with the other characters’ than you’d initially think, proving how tightly Schwab’s complex story is plotted.

The highlight of Vicious was the balance between Victor and Eliot. Their desires, their respective sidekicks, their motivations: all mirrored or contrasted each other. They are almost too similar to be called one another’s foils, and that is where Schwab exploited the ambiguity between good and bad, heroes and villains.

Whilst the non-chronological storytelling and the dichotomy between hero and villain were no doubt the novel’s strengths, I’d say the characters are, at times, two-dimensional. I found Victor difficult to relate to, and sometimes struggled to understand his motivations. He and Eli both felt like their behaviour was being dictated by plot, but with such a tightly constructed story, that was bound to happen. Vicious is a good read for those seeking a satisfying story with lots of twists and turns.

~Rachael McKenzie


Vicious by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsVicious is a dark and twisty tale of vengeance and super-powered people who you really don’t want to meet. Eli and Victor are two genius college friends and roommates who seem to be very different personalities on the surface but who share a similar ruthless streak. For their college senior theses, they experiment with the process of creating an EO or Extra-Ordinary, using themselves as human guinea pigs. Sooner than one might think, they figure it out. But an innocent person dies in the process, and it all goes downhill from there.

Victor ends up in jail, carrying a murderous grudge against Eli, who he blames, and Eli develops a twisted, quasi-religious mission to rid the world of all super-powered people, himself excluded. When Victor escapes from prison, he and Eli are at the top of each other’s snuff lists, even though their respective powers will make it difficult to kill the other. Each of them obsessively circles in on the other for the kill, with the assistance of some other gifted people: Eli has Serena, a young woman with a power that even Eli has a hard time combatting; Victor’s team is his former prison cellmate, Mitch, whose high intelligence is belied by his hulking physique, as well as Serena’s young sister Sydney.

Vicious has a non-linear structure, with Eli’s and Victor’s current manhunt interspersed with frequent and sometimes fairly lengthy flashbacks to their college days and other key points in their lives and those of the other main characters. I’m not always a fan of random jumps in time, but here the current events drive us inexorably toward a savage conflict, while the glimpses into the past served to gradually illuminate their plans and motivations.

Not everything in this story worked for me, and motivations were actually one of the weaker aspects of the tale, at times feeling more like authorial decisions made to move the plot forward, rather than integral aspects of the characters themselves. Despite Serena’s being persuaded by Eli that people (like herself) who have supernatural powers are “unnatural” and lack basic human feelings and compassion, I never really bought into Serena’s initial decision to lead Eli to her sister Sydney and allow him to (try to) kill her. A primary component of Eli’s current drive to eradicate EO people is his perverse religious belief, caused in large part by a piously cruel father. But again, as in Serena’s case, his ruthless, murderous campaign seems to lack sufficient motive, and it seems overly facile to blame religion for his acts.

Despite some drawbacks, Vicious is a compelling read, tightly plotted and complex. Some of my initial assumptions and expectations were gratifyingly upended as the plot unfolded. Whether Extra-Ordinaries actually have been stripped of empathy and are all essentially supervillains is a question that is left somewhat ambiguous, but I tend to think V.E. Schwab isn’t going for the easy answer here.

~Tadiana Jones

Publication Date: September 24, 2013. A masterful tale of ambition, jealousy, desire, and superpowers. 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? In Vicious, V. E. Schwab brings to life a gritty comic-book-style world in vivid prose: a world where gaining superpowers doesn’t automatically lead to heroism, and a time when allegiances are called into question.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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3 comments

  1. …All I knew about this book before your review is that the cover is gorgeous. I am SO bad about judging books on that basis.

  2. I loved the cover as well (and who doesn’t use the cover?)

  3. I thought “Warm Up” was a great story, and I’m very much looking forward to exploring more of the world Schwab created. Great review, Rachael!

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