A dark, page turning superhero revenge tale inhabited by morally challenged supernatural characters, brought to life with V. E. Schwab’s quickening prose.
“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” – Back Cover Blurb.
The only book from V.E. Schwab I’ve previously read was A Darker Shade of Magic. I enjoyed that book but wasn’t head over heels for it and never finished the series. But Schwab’s massive fanbase has kept me wondering if I missed something. Should I have returned to that series? Or should I try one of her other books? Some months back I was at the used bookstore, saw a copy of Vicious on the shelf, and thought to myself, “maybe I should try that one.” I’ll be honest and admit the cover alone made me want to read it. I picked it up and added it to my TBR where it’s sat until this month figuring October would be a good time to read it. I’m glad I finally did.
Vicious reminds me of two things…X-men and the 1990 movie Flatliners (I haven’t seen the 2017 version). With X-men it shares the trope of select people in the world having unique supernatural powers, people who are also shunned and feared because of their gifts. With Flatliners it shares the plot device of med-students who attempt to kill and revive themselves with…lets say negative outcomes. (If you’ve never seen Flatliners its worth a watch and stars much younger versions of Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon).
There are a handful of characters and points of view in Vicious. There’s Victor who is out for revenge against his old college friend Eli. Vic and Eli were best friends and roommates in college, but a joint experiment with near death experiences and EO’s (ExtraOrdinary people) leads to a rift and hatred between the two that can only end in one or the other’s death. There’s Sydney, a 12 year old EO with a special ability who has joined Vic’s little team in search of Eli. There’s Mitch, an ex-con and friend of Victor with computer skills who won’t leave his side. And there’s Serena, Sydney’s sister who…well…I won’t say just yet.
Each character gets some amount of POV chapters, but the majority go to Vic and Sydney. It really isn’t until part-two that another character gets a viewpoint. I know some readers don’t like alternating POV’s but I think works well in Vicious by allowing you to get inside the mind of each character a little. It adds some deeper perspective into their motivations, and even if you don’t come to side with some of their perspectives it definitely adds to character development. It also aides in the overall plot development by helping to fill-in plot holes with back-story for each character. That back-story device runs concurrently with the present in the narrative to tease and delay the big reveals and climax so that you’re really hooked and want to know just what the hell is going on and how it will all end.
The story is a revenge tale. What makes it interesting is that you are never really sure whether to root for the protagonist. In most revenge tales the author sets up the narrative so you feel for the main character, you know they’ve been wronged and their vengeance is due. But in Vicious it takes a little while for you to even know why Victor is out for revenge, and by the time it is fully revealed you’ve already come to realize Vic is not the greatest guy around. In fact you kinda wonder at times if you should root for the other guy; whether Schwab has been setting you up the whole time and if the protagonist is really the bad guy, or at least one of the bad guys. That tension between reader and character helps to keep you turning the pages to see if you’ve been played. It also makes you ponder the whole revenge trope and whether vengeance is good, or just a selfish enterprise. And while Vic does comes to have other reasons for tracking down Eli and ending him, it’s revenge that remains his primary motivation throughout.
A minor spoiler here (it’s revealed relatively early in the book but I wanted to warn you before you finish the paragraph)…one particular element of the story I liked was that elements of dying and the near death experience give characters in the book special abilities when they are revived. But its the added element that they also lose something of themselves in the process that really makes things interesting. There’s a numbness, or empty space within them, a lack of fear or remorse, something that makes them a little less human (or humane), something that also serves to drive them to a more extreme end, coupled with a new supernatural ability that shapes what they become. This thing they give up in becoming who they are gives them each a flaw or limitation, or hurdle they struggle to overcome making each of them into someone who must grapple with moral choices or risk falling down a dark hole.
Schwab keeps the pace moving in this book. I could see it work as a slow burn kind of novel but she didn’t go that route. The present day story line occurs over the space of about two days. The past tense elements go back ten years until they catch up with the present. The way she has the narrative moving back and forth between the two timelines keeps things hopping and you never get bored with it. Her writing style is also quick and fluid like a boxing match. At times it’s punchy with many short chapters with quick resolutions. At other times it’s drawn out a little like a fighter reeling an opponent in, ducking and weaving and then landing a right-hook or uppercut to jump-start the action again. But like a really exciting boxing match it is relatively quick and over before you catch your breath.
I’m giving Vicious a 3.75 out of 5 stars which means it falls somewhere between “I liked it” and “I really liked it.” It falls just short of that latter category for two reasons. For one, after finishing it i know I probably won’t ever pick it up to read it again. For me a 4 star rating means I know I may read it again. The second reason is it didn’t have that oomph factor I look for in a book that is 4 stars or higher. There has to be something that hits me in the feels (at least one of the feels, it doesn’t matter which) to garner a 4 out of me. Vicious came close, and while writing this review I wondered if I’d edge it higher (which I did, moving it from 3.5 to 3.75) but it fell just short. It was a fun read, I enjoyed it a lot and I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the series.
3.75 of 5 Stars
Author: V.E. Schwab
Series: Villains #1
Publication Date: September, 2013