Series: Vicious #1
Published by Tor on September 24th, 2013
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction
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.
For as long as I can remember, a book with an “evil” main character, or anti-hero, has been on the very top of my reading wishlist. (We’ll ignore the glaringly idiotic fact that I had this book on my shelf for more than a year and a half and didn’t read it.) Vicious burst into the world with no small amount of hype, so it was somewhat daunting to read it, but boy am I glad I did. This book will be on my favorites shelf for years.
Vicious takes all the superhero movies you ever loved and twists them into something far more complex. In this science fiction/urban fantasy novel, two intelligent-as-hell college students discover that it is actually possible for a normal human to become ExtraOrdinary (an EO) following a near death experience. It’s a premise that is rooted in science – about the body’s will to survive – and the “gift” each EO gets is tailored to the manner of their almost demise. However, simply discovering this fact is not enough for Victor and Eli. The discovery of this kind of power leads to the ambition to seize it for themselves.
While the plot of Vicious is thrilling for sure, for me this book is all about the characters. They’re so wonderfully flawed and complex! Victor is ambitious, selfish, and not just a little egotistical. He pretty much despises the world around him. However, he owns those flaws. He acknowledges them, and when push comes to shove he does have a pretty strong moral compass. Eli is the one you would first think of as kind, intelligent, and benevolent, but he’s just as proud and conceited as Victor. He just keeps that side of him buried down deep – though Victor can spot it through the cracks in his facade. When the two of them are both superpowered and have a falling out (to put it in the lightest way possible), their views on justice completely diverge. It’s not a battle of good vs evil that follows. It’s not black and white. It’s twenty thousand shades of gray and revenge on top of revenge on top of revenge – and that’s what makes this book so interesting to read and then to discuss. (Incidentally this was a book club pick and it led to an excellent discussion.)
Obviously I have to draw the parallel to one of my favorite manga and anime series Death Note. Death Note also has an anti-hero protagonist, and it’s so delightfully complex because you gradually see him going on a downward spiral. Power corrupts, for sure, and though Light first decides to kill people he deems “evil” and absolutely does some good for the world, as time passes the lines blur and the question is raised… who dubbed him judge, jury, and executioner? The conflict is similar in Vicious though also more intricate and complex because both Victor and Eli arguably do terrible things – and that makes me like it even better.
The storytelling takes a little getting used to here. The voices are strong and the characterizations are absolutely excellent, but there are a lot of jumps in both perspective and time. You see Victor’s point of view pretty consistently throughout the book, but it starts by alternating between the present day and 10 years ago. When necessary, Eli gets a point of view as well, and other supporting characters later sporadically get a voice too. Then there are more time jumps again. Ordinarily, this could confuse and overwhelm me, but Schwab is a master storyteller. Every switch, every jump adds something to the story. It never gets confusing and instead just pushes you to keep reading because you want to understand all these aspects, all these characters and their motivations, all their back stories. The blurb on the cover, “A killer from page one,” is pretty much the best description ever. I never wanted to stop reading – it was interesting, intense, and action-packed.
Obviously I love this book a lot. I love the big moral questions it raises. I love all the depth in both the characters and the overall story. I loved the exciting, intense action scenes. I love that Schwab made me fall so deeply in love with a character that is very obviously not a very good guy. Victor got me rooting for him, because though he is ambitious and condescending to the world, his voice is so strong, and he will fight for what’s right (or, at least, what he deems right – whether you agree with him or not is another issue). When he accidentally finds himself caring for his 12-year-old sidekick (and her adorable dog), it completely stole my heart. Mitch, his other sidekick and loyal friend, also grew on me. I just love every part of this book, okay? (Except that there’s no sequel. *sobs*)