I have been salivating over Vicious by V.E. Schwab since she first announced its existence on Twitter. I don’t think it’s any big secret that I love a well-written villain. So finding out that Victoria, whose writing I adore, had penned an entire novel about supervillains? Bliss. Pure, utter bliss. The only problem was that I had to actually wait for Vicious to release, and I suck at waiting.
BUT because I live in the best writing community in the entire world*, one that is home to one V.E. Schwab, I was actually able to get my hands on an early copy. Naturally, I devoured it almost the second I got my grimy** little fingers on it (not the exact second, as I had to drive home and that would’ve gotten messy). As expected, I loved every single twisted page.
Disclaimer: You’ve probably heard of V.E. Schwab’s alter ego, Victoria Schwab, author of The Near Witch and The Archived. Victoria is a YA author. V.E. is an Adult author. Vicious is an Adult book, with an adult voice and adult content. It’s still very much Victoria’s lovely writing, but it does not feel like her YA. It’s all grown up and dark and twisted and in need of therapy. So if you are a teen, or an adult who prefers YA, a word of caution before jumping on the Vicious bandwagon. It’s fantastic — but it’s not YA.
*I have not lived in every writing community in the world — just the one — but I’m pretty sure it’s the best.
**They were probably not actually grimy, but I can’t rule it out since I had tacos for dinner.
The Plot (from Goodreads):
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.
I loved Vicious from the first few chilling pages. Vicious is a little grittier, a little bleaker than Victoria’s YA novels, but although the prose is more stark than in her other books, it lacks none of her characteristic lyricism. It’s obvious from the disturbing opening — where we meet two of our main characters as they dig up a grave — that the reader is in for a well-crafted tale spun by a mind that is twisted in the best possible way.
Let’s talk for a minute about characters. Vicious focuses around two central characters, Victor and Eli, once best friends, now mortal enemies. Each has his own small band of misfit allies, some with powers, some without. And the best part of every single one of these characters is that each of them chooses sides based on what they believe in their hearts to be right. Maybe not good, but right. The calls they make are difficult, their actions are not clean and the consequences are often messy, but each fully realized secondary character picks the side they think is best not just for them individually, but the world as a whole. Which makes every character think they are fighting for the side of light, when in reality, they all inhabit a world of gray.
Getting back to Eli and Victor, my favorite villains in fiction have always been the ones who were motivated by more than darkness, power, and a desire to watch the world burn. Sure, there’s a strange dark beauty in a villain who will stop at nothing to destroy the hero, simply because he stands on the side of good. The Jokers and the Voldemorts and the Moriartys. But an excellent villain is one who can make me root for him, in spite of the fact that he opposes our hero, because in his own mind, he is right. These are the Lokis, the Magnetos, the Dr. Horribles, the Javerts. They’re the villains I know need to be defeated, but I keep hoping they will redeem themselves, because they make me care for them. Sometimes even more than I care for the good guys.
Eli and Victor both fall into this second category. Vicious is a book about villains, except none of the characters see themselves as particularly villainous. Certainly neither starts off that way. Eli and Victor begin as college roommates and best friends, whose downward spiral into villainy begins as nothing more than a thesis project and a flight of fancy. This is not a case of characters destined to be evil masterminds. They’re simply two guys who were, quite literally, too clever for their own good.
Ironically, the character who is indisputably the more righteous of the pair is probably the closest thing to a pure villain, whereas the one who comes across as more heroic (although even he is far from a hero) sees himself as irredeemable. The character with the stronger moral compass drifts deep into the darkness, while the one with little empathy or remorse holds himself in check right where the light begins to fade into shadow. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, and brilliantly executed. Vicious doesn’t paint either protagonist in particularly rosy colors, and both characters make terrible decisions and, at one point or another, commit terrible acts of violence with motives that are far from noble. But in this world where nothing is as simple as black and white or good and evil, it’s fascinating to see who we root for. I finished the book thinking really, one character wasn’t so bad — surely he wasn’t a villain — until I thought back to what he actually did, and I realized yes, yes he was. He just wasn’t as much of a villain as the other character. And I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him, because I liked him — even though in a black-and-white world, I really shouldn’t have liked him.
As for the plot itself, Vicious is an intricately woven tale of intrigue and deception, betrayal and revenge. The rules of the world are simple and clear, enough that you find yourself wondering if maybe it is possible to give yourself superpowers through thwarting death. The twists and turns aren’t predictable, yet everything makes sense. The action isn’t constant, but ebbs and flows in a natural rhythm that keeps the pages flying by. Victoria masterfully builds the tension leading to the final confrontation between Victor and Eli throughout the entire book, slowly ratcheting up anticipation until it’s almost unbearable. And when they finally do meet, the result is explosive, bloody, and deliciously satisfying. I was left wanting more, not because any threads were left dangling, but because this world and these characters were so painfully amazing that it hurt to be parted from them.
If you’re a fan of sympathetic villains and realistic superpowers and dark, twisty tales brimming with moral ambiguity, make haste to your nearest bookseller and pick up a copy of Vicious. Run, don’t walk. Or, if you can, fly.