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.
Whaaaaaat did I just read? What was that? You guys, Vicious is fascinating. It's like a Rubik’s cube and a graphic novel had an illicit affair and this is their love child.
It has been a long time since I've read a book that has made me feel as mentally engaged on so many levels. I don’t even know where to begin breaking the book down. On the surface you have the obvious comic book trope: crime-fighting hero matched against the villain, his personal nemesis. Former friends turned enemies as the result of a dramatic series of events that left someone dead, one man with a mission and another man with a one way ticket to prison, both of them with superpowers. It's impossible to describe without sounding overly dramatic.
Don’t mistake my meaning here, the tropes worked for this book. Probably because Victoria Schwab intentionally introduces them and then immediately throws them out the window. What if the hero wasn't really the hero? What if the villain only appeared to be the villain because he was trying to take down the guy everyone thinks of as the hero? (Confused yet? But, wait! There’s more!)
The paper called Eli a hero.
The word made Victor laugh. Not just because it was absurd, but because it posed a question. If Eli really was the hero, and Victor was meant to stop him, did that make him a villain?
When the book opened with Victor’s POV and from the moment I realized that he was supposed to play the villain, I was hooked. A misunderstood villain! An antihero! I love antiheroes! Done well, they are amazing character studies and there are few things I love more than a good, complicated onion of a character. But then, just when you’re settling into the book, thinking things like 'he’s not really a villain, just misunderstood by the world at large but with a secret warm, squishy center’ Schwab flips things around on you again.
You see, Victor Vale is undeniably a sociopath and you can’t totally bring yourself to sympathize with him. Even though Victor is doing the things the good guy would do, he is doing them for all the wrong reasons. Example, Victor doesn't kill people, not because he thinks killing is wrong, but because he doesn't want to deal with the mess and complications that follow killing another human being. He recognizes that other people don’t go around murdering each other because that would be wrong, but for him it comes down to not wanting the trouble. Coldly precise logic and questionable morals, that’s Victor in a nutshell.
“I don’t think you’re a bad person, Victor.”
Victor kept digging. “It’s all a matter of perspective.”
There are many themes explored, but the biggest one is the significance of perspective. Through a combination of rotating POVs (love!) and flashbacks (initially disorienting, but quickly became awesome), you realize that each of the main characters have layers upon contradicting layers. Eli, the hero/villain/I don’t even know, is also a sociopath but of the mass murdering variety. However, he has convinced himself that he is on a sacred mission sanctioned by God. Serena, the hero’s gal Friday, is a riddle. One moment cold, the next pitifully broken, full of self-loathing with a general apathy for life. Mitch and Sydney, the villain’s muscle and girl sidekick respectively, serve as Victor’s Jiminy Crickets, and are probably the closest thing this story has to actual good guys. But they don't comfortably fit in that box because they go along with Victor’s more nefarious schemes, they just have the decency to feel conflicted about it.
While Vicious is very much a character driven novel, the rest of the book does not disappoint. The science is well reasoned and theoretically possible. (SHUT UP IT IS TOTALLY LEGIT THAT WE COULD HAVE SUPERPOWERS WHAT DO YOU KNOW ANYWAY?) The writing is atmospheric with a touch of dry humor with unexpectedly charming and quirky touches (notes! masks!) The slow-burn plot is complex and builds to an explosive showdown. This book has all the things.
“You’re the hero…,” she said, finding his eyes, “...of your own story, anyway.”
This is the message at the heart of the book. Heroes and villains aren't necessarily that different depending on how you're looking at the situation.
Vicious is a seriously interesting, thought-provoking read. I highly, highly recommend it for fans of Breaking Bad, Dexter, Watchmen, The Dark Knight, etc. Basically anything that examines the human nature from every side, flaws and all, emphasis on flaws. If these sound like appealing concepts to ponder, this book is for you.
This review also appears on Cuddlebuggery.