Author: V.E. Schwab
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Superheroes
Publication Date: September 2013
Hardcover: 368 Pages
A masterful, twisted tale of ambition, jealousy, betrayal, and superpowers, set in a near-future world.
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.
Stand alone or series: Standalone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
Why did I read this book: Both Ana and I are fans of Victoria Schwab’s – Ana loved The Near Witch, and I enjoyed The Archived. So, when we learned that the author had a new book out – her first adult novel, under pseudonym V.E. Schwab – focusing on superhero/villain tropes, we were ecstatic. (And since I had the copy of the book, I got to review it. Sorry, Ana!)
Victor and Eli. Roommates, brilliant young minds, and best friends. Always vying for the top spot in their science courses at University, Victor and Eli are evenly matched in intellect – though Victor is antisocial and wields his intellect as a weapon, whereas Eli is all warm charm and gregarious handsomeness. Despite these differences, there is something that connects the two friends and draws them together – for Victor is attracted to the sharp, unseen thing that lies just beneath Eli’s easygoing mask, and recognizes it in himself. When it is time for the pair to select their senior thesis to culminate their scientific undergraduate careers, they embark on a dangerous experiment together to test the idea that EOs – ExtraOrdinary people – exist, and that they can be created with the right set of conditions.
Their experiment works, but at a terrible cost – people are dead, Victor and Eli’s friendship is forever broken.
It has been ten years since Eli and Victor have seen each other; ten years since Victor has been incarcerated in a maximum security prison for some unknown terrible crimes. But Victor is out now, and he’s hunting down Eli with revenge on his mind.
Let me start this review proper by saying: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Vicious. From the cover art, from the general feel of the synopsis (especially the main character’s name, Victor), I was expecting this to be set in an alternate world with Georgian/Victorian-ish undertones. I expected mad science à la Victor Frankenstein (i.e. crackling electricity and stolen cadavers), excessive amounts of hubris, and ultimately cruel, sad death. I expected arch-enemies to be made of former friends, of certain powers and abilities to be shown – but I was thinking more along the lines of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in execution, rather than, say, X-Men.
In truth, Vicious does tell the story of arch-nemeses Victor Vale and Eli Ever, but the book decidedly is not set in the Victorian era, or in University Ingolstadt, or at a remote Swiss château. Rather, Vicious takes place in an analog of our own modern-day (albeit in a slightly different world). The brilliant young scientists Victor and Eli do experiment with their ambitious theories, mad science-style, but this all happens with modern technology – computers, phones, well-equipped undergraduate science labs. Theirs is also a world where EOs, or ExtraOrdinary people, are widely suspected to exist among the general populace, although no one really takes them seriously.1 Once I recovered from my initial confusion, I very much loved this modern setting for Vicious – I liked the undergraduate college past the two friends-cum-enemies shared, and the modernism of the technology and world makes Vicious stand out and feel more distinct and relevant as a unique take on not just superheroes and superpowers, but of “heroes” and “villains” in general.2
Suffice it to say, Vicious is a bit of an odd book to position and describe – ultimately, I’m putting it in two categories. It’s an unexpected book, and it’s an awesome book. It questions our existing understanding of superpowers and the notion of heroism, and it does so in a way that feels smart, non-preachy, and utterly memorable. I love that neither Victor nor Eli are categorized with simple “good” or “evil” labels. As Mitch says, there are no good guys in this story and Victor and Eli aren’t exactly role models; even from the outset of the book the two are borderline sociopaths, or at least enormously narcissistic because they are both brilliant and smarter than anyone else at their school. Their lack of empathy is only exacerbated after they induce their own god-like powers. This, I think, is the brilliance of Vicious – because while we hear that great power comes with great responsibility, our own superheroes almost always do the Right Thing. Superman does not get drunk on power, and he uses his abilities for the greater good. Victor and Eli? Not so much. In Vicious superpowers come with super-costs – hubris in the extreme, with Eli actually playing God and Victor casually disinterested in the collateral damage on his single-minded mission of revenge.
Similarly, in that world-building and rule-setting vein, Vicious posits that ExtraOrdinary humans are created, not born. Following near-death experiences (NDEs) and an influx of fear, adrenaline, and a desperate desire to live, EOs are people that have come back from the brink of death, but have changed, and have some new power based on those last fleeting thoughts and desperate wishes before death. I won’t spoil anyone’s party tricks for you, but they are pretty good – Victor, Eli, Sydney, Serena and a latecomer named Dominic all have their own distinct types of superpowers, and it’s a very cool way to look at the genesis of such abilities. That said, the flip side of this is what else happens after someone dies and comes back to life. I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the idea that anyone that comes back from an NDE is missing a part of their soul; that all EOs in this world, technically, are “spiritually” damaged and lacking sympathy. Nonetheless, I give props to Schwab for originality here, even if I’m not sure I buy into it or particularly like this interpretation of NDEs or the uncomfortable spiritualistic/religious side to the book.
And I haven’t even begun to talk about the characters themselves, outside of the framework of the themes and worldbuilding aspects of the novel! Victor Vale is the true protagonist of Vicious and something of an anti-hero. As I’ve said, he begins the book as a brilliant if self-important young man, who has a love-hate relationship with his roommate Eli. While Victor is all dangerous sharp edges and cool, calm anger, Eli is warm and charming, and every bit as intelligent as his roommate. Despite their outward differences, though, Victor senses the same razor-edge in Eli, underneath his friendly façade – their relationship, even from the start of the book, is one fraught with competition and need, the desire to show the other one up but also earn his approval. We don’t really get to spend as much time in Eli’s head as we do Victor’s, but the constructs Victor builds to define his relationship with Eli is fascinating, uncomfortable, and desperate. The book flashes back and forth through time, from real-time to ten years prior, detailing the events leading up to Victor’s incarceration and the fallout between the best friends – so we get these little glimpses of Victor’s early subconscious desperation for Eli’s attention, to his post-prison obsession to not only get Eli’s attention but to pay him back for… well, some very bad thing that tore their friendship asunder.
This is the heart of the book; the crux of the tension that drives Victor to do the things he does. And, incidentally, it is the only thing I found disappointing with regard to this novel. This conflict is the keystone that holds up the arch of the entire book, the lynchpin that determines the salience of the rest of the book. And… when we finally learn what has passed between the two, it’s a little underwhelming. As it stands, there is a single event that tears the two apart, and it happens overnight – hardly satisfying payout for all that buildup. I wanted MORE; more drama, more blood, more dramatic time spent showing the two young men growing apart and becoming such bitter enemies that it consumes Victor’s life and the ten years he has spent in prison. Alas.
That criticism said, the rest of the journey in Vicious is so brilliantly wrought that my disappointment was tempered by the awesomeness of the rest of the book. I haven’t even said much of the secondary characters – Sydney and her sister Serena in particular are standout characters – but I think I’ve blabbed on for long enough. What it all comes down to is this: I loved Vicious and I think you will, too. Give it a shot, please?
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave. His trench billowed faintly, brushing the tops of tombstones as he made his way through Merit Cemetery, humming as he went. The sound carried like wind through the dark. It made Sydney shiver in her too big coat and her rainbow leggings and her winter boots as she trudged along behind him. The two looked like ghosts as they wove through the graveyard, both blond and fair enough to pass for siblings, or perhaps father and daughter. They were neither, but the resemblance certainly came in handy since Victor couldn’t very well tell people he’d picked up the girl on the side of a rain-soaked road a few days before. He’d just broken out of jail. She’d just been shot. A crossing of fates, or so it seemed. In fact, Sydney was the only reason Victor was beginning to believe in fate at all.
He stopped humming, rested his shoe lightly on a tombstone, and scanned the dark. Not with his eyes so much as with his skin, or rather with the thing that crept beneath it, tangled in his pulse. He might have stopped humming, but the sensation never did, keeping on with a faint electrical buzz that only he could hear and feel and read. A buzz that told him when someone was near.
Sydney watched him frown slightly.
“Are we alone?” she asked.
Victor blinked, and the frown was gone, replaced by the even calm he always wore. His shoe slid from the gravestone. “Just us and the dead.”
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
We have one copy of Vicious up for grabs! The contest is open to addresses in the US only and will run until Saturday, October 5 at 11:59pm (EST). To enter, use the form below. Good luck!
Reading Next: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
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- On an interesting note, this is also a world with our own comic book heroes and villains. Victor and Eli discuss the genesis of EOs by comparing and contrasting Superman (born with his abilities) versus Spiderman (gains his abilities after a radioactive event). ↩
- I should also say, this setting/era and focus confusion could be entirely be something I made up in my head – perhaps to everyone else the synopsis + cover feel like a modern superhero story with no Frankenstein-esque undertones. In which case I apologize for the lengthy diversion here! ↩