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?
A searingly intelligent, morally dubious rivalry story: think BBC's Sherlock meets X-Men meets The Prestige. (V.E. Schwab owns my entire heart. No one is surprised.)I went into Vicious already knowing that I would adore it. What I didn't know is just how eagerly I'd be hanging on to every single word.
I'd had it on my shelf for over a year before reading it; I think part of me wanted to save it for a particularly bad day when I needed to be blown away by good writing, or a special occasion when I just had to have the perfect book to read. But one of my unofficial 'resolutions' this year is to read all the books I own that I haven't yet gotten a chance to dive into—and besides, why deny myself nice things for no real reason?—and I thought Vicious would be the perfect way to start out.
Victoria Schwab captured my heart way back in 2014 with her YA contemporary fantasy The Archived (the sequel of which I have yet to read, despite the fact that I own it—perhaps that'll be up next!). She then hit another home run for me in 2015 with her adult fantasy A Darker Shade of Magic. With her incredibly inventive concepts, fascinating and magnetic characters, and flawless prose, she's indisputably become one of my very favorite authors. So what better book was there to begin my reading year with than Victoria Schwab's first adult fantasy?
What first drew me to this book—other than the obvious fact that Victoria Schwab had written it—was the stunning, stunning premise. To put it bluntly, it promised everything I'd wanted from, say, X-Men but had found lacking: a more coherent explanation for superpowers (which the book does give, by the way, and it's pretty awe-inspiring in its logic), an honest-to-goodness cutthroat rivalry between two brilliant people with extraordinary abilities, and shade after shade of moral ambiguity. I confess that I've never really been one for superhero films, hence my status as possibly the only person in the known universe who isn't really in the Marvel fandom, but the concept of Vicious hinted at something darker, less clean-cut. I was—to make a gross understatement—excited about that.
Victor Vale, as well as his relationship with Eli Ever, is the most prominent highlight of Vicious for me (although this book is, in my honest opinion, made of highlights). At first, I viewed him askance, because I prefer having leading characters I can root for to some extent. But Victor grew on me at a rate that I found somewhat alarming, considering his, er, skewed moral compass. His ways of evaluating fellow humans were troubling, albeit nothing short of fascinating. Despite the feeling of wrongness he initially gave me as a reader, I soon found that he has a host of compelling qualities that I couldn't look away from, things that I understood. His single-minded ambition. His interest in someone—Eli—who seems so like him yet not. His startling moments of empathy, which always come when he least expects it. Victor Vale may not live in all of us, but parts of him do, like different dialects of the same language, and that was what kept me following him, straight through to the end.
Which leads me to the other half of the rivalry that defines this book: Eli Ever. Although neither of our two leading men are 'heroes' in any sense of the word, Eli somehow manages to get away with casting himself in a positive light, thanks to circumstances and his own conviction. His motivations, shaped by his nature—which has always been somewhat off—and emotional upheaval of the worst kind, are deeply perturbing but intriguing to read about nonetheless. He's tricky to get a feel for and almost seems amoral at times, but he has an undeniable pull to him, possibly because the reader can understand him in some sense. He's like Victor in this way, and in many others. His and Victor's relationship is thorny and driven by so many overlapping emotions that it's hard to make them out: envy, love, regret, hatred, respect. An affinity for each other that no one is really able to name.
What inevitably jumps out to me after discussing Victor and Eli is the themes that this book examines in a way that is powerful and yet seemingly effortless. I know, I know—for many of us, the word 'theme' brings back vivid flashbacks of high school literature classes (trust me, I'm in one). But what matters about Vicious is not its ability to act as a teaching tool; rather, the important thing is the book's capacity for generating weighty food for thought. For me, it showed that the difference between a hero and a villain is often simply a matter of perspective, and there may be no good people on either side—or the many sides—of a conflict. The ones we revere may merely be the ones who justified their actions to the majority more effectively. As for morality? It's an ever-changing construct for every individual. To quote Hamlet: " ... there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
The rest of the cast is no less superb, especially the Friendly Murder Crew™ led by the true problematic fave, Victor Vale. The 'strays' Victor picks up on his quest for revenge are certainly strange, and perhaps not entirely whole, but they're still strangely lovable, much like Victor himself. Mitchell Turner is, in summary, someone I'd definitely want on my zombie apocalypse team, and I loved reading his backstory. Sydney Clarke is quite possibly one of the most sinister and wonderful twelve-year-old girls in all of literature. And of course we have to mention Dol, because no murder crew is complete without a semi-dead dog. (You think I'm joking.) The dynamic between Sydney and her sister Serena is also worth a mention, as they're both very layered characters whose history with each other is complex and fraught with emotional tripwires. Serena is a whole other story in and of herself as well, with her interior that leaves even the most powerful characters frightened. In a book with such magnetic main characters, one might think that the supporting cast would fall by the wayside, but that's not the case here, and this book is all the stronger for it.
In Vicious, Schwab writes with all the cunning wit, dangerously gorgeous language, and incisive insight into character that I've come to expect from her. There are few things I appreciate more than excellently crafted prose, and this book delivers that in spades. It doesn't embellish so much that it detracts from the story itself, but it adds a perfect tug at the heartstrings whenever it's needed, in the form of a sardonic description or a devastating metaphor or a flawless turn of phrase. Really, Schwab's writing speaks for itself far more eloquently than any description of it that I could possibly give.
This book has some of the most heart-in-your-mouth pacing you'll ever experience, and there's never a slow or predictable moment in the plot. A calm before the storm, maybe. But nothing to let you really settle. I had a bit of a moment every time I needed to stop reading and drag myself away from the pages. I don't think there's as much overstated action as one might expect, but the characters spark volatile reactions in one another that keep the storyline moving constantly, and Schwab deftly manipulates the book's timeline so that the reader gets only the vivid, essential information they need at exactly the right times. (I'm also in love with some of the book's scene parallels. Once you finish, you'll know what I mean.)
On the whole, Vicious is a beautifully executed, thoroughly ingenious story that questions the lines between good guys and bad. It was a superlative way of kicking off my reading year—reinforcing my love of everything Victoria Schwab writes—and I can't wait for the sequel.
"[...] Hell, we could be heroes."
"We could be dead."
"That's a risk everyone takes by living."
The moments that define lives aren't always obvious. They don't always scream LEDGE, and nine times out of ten there's no rope to duck under, no line to cross, no blood pact, no official letter on fancy paper. They aren't always protracted, heavy with meaning.
[...] Victor was the first to speak, and when he did, it was with an eloquence and composure perfectly befitting the situation.
A hero. Wasn't he? Heroes saved the world from villains, from evil. Heroes sacrificed themselves to do it. Was he not bloodying his hands and his soul to set the world right?
Someone could call themselves a hero and still walk around killing dozens. Someone else could be labeled a villain for trying to stop them. Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.
There were some people you had to stay away from, people who poisoned everything in reach. Then there were people you wanted to stick with, the ones with silver tongues and golden touches. And then, there were people you stood beside, because it meant you weren't in their way.