Vicious: The execution is so well done

Vicious by V.E. Schwab fantasy book reviewsVicious by V.E. Schwab

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.

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 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.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

2 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?)

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