First: a preface, I have read (and thoroughly enjoyed) this book before. I wanted to do a re-read before I read the sequel Vengeful (watch this space for my upcoming review of that). It was interesting as I read to note what I’d remembered. It was actually most of it, including some rather significant pieces (I almost entirely forgot Serena existed? I remembered Sydney, though).
Anyway, on to the review! It’s a long one this time, sorry if you prefer my usual shorter summaries, but VE Schwab is one of my favourite authors, Vicious is one of my favourite books, and I have a lot to say!
I’ll start with the cover. I love the new artwork, the colour scheme is perfection, and thank you to The Nerd Daily who hosted the competition in which I won both Vicious and Vengeful (the sequel!!!).
Look at it! So pretty!
DISCLAIMER- This synopsis is not mine (in case that wasn’t clear).
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?
Special shoutout to this book for being the first place I learnt about blackout poetry. I’ve since come across the idea in a couple of different places, and even made some of my own1, and every time I think it’s a really cool way to encourage creativity and really draw out the themes you’re subconsciously drawn to.
I like that the characters in Vicious were able to become larger than life in a character defining way, without the plot device seeming trite. VE Schwab struck the right balance of science and unexplained magic for superhero tropes2 to make sense in-world; and I loved it. A nod to classic hero/villain storylines, without seeming overly convenient or trite.
VE Schwab is a master of characterisation, and I think she is so good because Vicious is full of archetypes—in fact, the classic good vs evil, comic book feel is part of what makes the book so effective. But! The crucial part! None of her characters are two-dimensional stereotypes. Sydney is an innocent, but she’s just as much a younger sister who wants to be like (or liked by) her older sister. Mitch is just as much a mother figure to Sydney as he is Victor’s sidekick. Victor is a classic anti-hero, and one of the only well-written children of a neglectful (but not physically violent) home that I’ve ever encountered. Even Eli could easily have slipped into cheesy tropes, as a religious fanatic or charming sociopath, but he manages to also be a young, ambitious teen, a damaged person desperate to believe that he’s special or worthy, that he matters.
I liked that VE Schwab didn’t shy away from the damage and lack of self-worth needed to become either a hero or a villain. To remake yourself, you need to leave your old life behind. Usually, that means the person you were, and the people who knew you, weren’t worth holding onto, and/or didn’t think you were. I like that the heroes and villains aren’t all inexplicably orphans, their parents just weren’t worthy to stay in their children’s lives. There’s not enough representation of that in fiction, either.
The interplay between Victor and Eli is compelling, and anyone who enjoys the X-Men comics or movies will recognise the uniquely appealing trainwreck that is best-friends-turned-better-enemies. Mitch and Serena (Victor and Eli’s replacement sidekicks, respectively) are also complete people in their own right. Even Stell, sparingly as he appears, is fully realised.
I loved the use of hobbies and habits as character development: Victor’s defacement of his parents’ books as a way to assert his own point of view, his own validity and importance. Eli’s research into EOs as his search for proof of the divine, and later, of his own superior potential and worth.
I really liked that Victor had less morals than other characters, and he didn’t immediately become a crazed serial killer. Sure, he realised killing would be convenient, but he also realised that it would set society against him, which would be anything but. Lack of emotions doesn’t mean a lack of intelligence—I appreciated that part of Victor’s personality. Even his attempts to recreate feelings of guilt, to ensure he’s acting by a code of ethics closer to that of society (except when it would impede his goals) is a smart move that supposedly intelligent anti-heroes/villains so often fail to take.
I liked that Sydney was never defined by her age, gender or inexperience. She could have been pigeonholed as a victim, or as a helpless child in need of protection. While she did need to be protected at times (she’s twelve), and she does suffer over the course of the book (one of the first things we learn about her is that she died), she’s an integral part of Victor’s team, and anyone that discounts her learns to regret it (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers, okay!).
I liked the way the narrative jumped around, revealing character backstory in ways that elegantly foreshadowed plot twists and built tension. I think too much backstory can occasionally kill narrative tension, but it does quite the opposite in Vicious, providing motivation for the character’s actions and revealing nuance you wouldn’t expect.
As for dislikes, I don’t know that there are many. I wish we knew more about Eli’s backstory (the scars on his back in particular come to mind as an area that should be explored). There are obvious hints that Sydney’s power has limits or drawbacks, and I want that to be examined further. I want to know more about Angie, she was the least developed of any main-ish character, serving a key role, without actually being fleshed out much being ‘pretty, smart, nice, engineer’.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Victor apparently being in love with Angie, it didn’t seem very true to his character. Although the book does allow for the possibility that he wasn’t in love with her, that he was just jealous that he got less time/attention from both of his friends when he introduced them to each other. As an only child (and a neglected one at that), his friendship with two peers ‘worthy’ of his time3 was important to him in part because his parents taught him that he wasn’t worth their time, and Eli and Angie helped to teach him otherwise. Maybe Victor didn’t want his relationship (with Eli or Angie) to be more than friendship, but he got a bit offended when it became less, simply because they met each other.
I feel like a scene with Victor’s parents could be interesting, if only to see how he reacts when confronted by the reality of the Drs Vale, rather than their proxies (the textbooks he destroys). They are the people that made him crave power, control, importance and notice. Does he still want those things from them, or has he learnt to look for what he needs in places more likely to provide?
I want to see Victor be a bit nicer to himself. He thinks he’s a monster, he lets Eli make him a villain, but he discounts his kind actions—to Sydney, to Dol, even to Mitch4. Victor is a nuanced anti-hero, the epitome of the character people paint (usually with fan art/theories, can you say ‘Marvel’s Loki’?) when they decide a villain is too interesting/hot/scarred to be all bad.
My favourite line comes from a drunken Victor, and I feel like it captures a feeling of yearning that I imagine most people feel, but the quote puts it better than I could, so here it is:
“I want to believe in this. I want to believe that there’s more…That we could be more.”
In other words: Vicious is great if you like classic superhero themes—good vs evil, reinventing yourself, someone becoming more themselves than they’ve been before, and how they deal with that—and enjoy nuanced characterisation; compelling, character driven plots and non-linear timelines.
1With falling apart thrift store books, if you were worried—I did not destroy useful books
2Tragic backstories, oddly coloured hair, arch-rivals, secretly working with the police, etc etc
3I identify with Victor for more than a few reasons, the painfully accurate description of his condescending thoughts regarding other people as a teenager being one of them
4I know Victor benefits from their relationships and seems quite careless with Mitch’s safety, but Victor also carefully ensures that Mitch is safe during his schemes, far safer than Victor himself