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Vicious by V. E. Schwab

Vicious by V. E. Schwab
4.5
Book Name: Vicious
Author: V. E. Schwab
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Superheroes
Release Date: September 24, 2013 (US) October 14, 2013 (UK)

V. E. Schwab’s Vicious is built around a handful of characters with superpowers, but precious few – if any – superheroes. That’s part of what makes it so much fun. Schwab’s dialogue crackles with sharp edges and gallows humor, drawing the reader in with a dark story whose tone is established through the voice of its antihero protagonist. Two damaged men seek answers to fantastical questions, then seek peace in the wake of what they discover. A young girl feels the pain of a sister’s betrayal. A huge man who believes himself cursed finds himself drawn into a world of super-powered psychopaths. In the midst of all this, Vicious is a well-written, character-driven novel that immediately establishes Schwab as a writer well worth watching.

In her first adult novel (she has several young adult books to her credit), Schwab’s story centers around two brilliant but twisted college roommates drawn together because each recognizes the other is slightly off – and likes it. Victor, our antagonist, is quiet and introverted, with none of the easy grace and charm that allows Eli to disguise his inner darkness from everyone else. As Schwab describes it, “All Eli had to do was smile. All Victor had to do was lie. Both proved frighteningly effective.”

Together, they realize that under the right circumstances, those who survive near-death experiences can come back with heightened abilities, making them ExtraOrdinaries (EOs). Unwilling to limit their research to the hypothetical, they each bring themselves to the brink of death, only to find that the experience has changed them in ways they hadn’t predicted.

Schwab has clearly put a lot of thought into the concept of heroes and villains, and how characters can straddle the fence between these opposites. Even before they get their powers, Victor and Eli are clearly disturbed. Victor is under no illusions regarding his nature – in fact, early in the book he gets out of prison and believes that in his absence Eli has likely been filling the hero’s role, making Victor, by default, the villain. But once he finds Eli, he discovers that his former peer has filled his days murdering fellow EOs, suddenly transforming Victor from the villain to the hero. At one point, Victor himself briefly considers the idea of heroes and villains:

These words people threw around – humans, monsters, heroes, villains – to victor it was all just a matter of semantics. … Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.

Even as Victor freely admits that he’s a psychopath, Schwab finds ways to make him likeable, primarily by surrounding him with a charming supporting cast. Sydney, a young girl who survives a near-death experience only to discover she now has the ability to raise the dead, may have the most harrowing EO ability in the book, but her faith in Victor’s ability to protect her actually makes it difficult to remember just how dangerous and uncaring Victor really is. Mitchell makes for an even more likeable character, and once again shows how Schwab plays with our expectations – just as Sydney has one of the book’s creepiest abilities but no ill intentions, Mitchell is described as the single most physically intimidating character in the book, but must rely on his smarts as a vanilla human with the misfortune to be involved in a battle between super-powered EOs.

It’s Victor’s relationship with both these characters that subtly helps to humanize him, making it easier to root for him despite his numerous flaws. It’s not just that Mitchell and Sydney trust him, but the fact that Victor obviously cares for his two compatriots – even if he would deny such feelings himself, and even if the way he demonstrates that he cares are just a bit … creepy.

“Sydney, look at me.” He rested his hands on the car roof and leaned in. “No one is going to hurt you. Do you know why?” She shook her head, and Victor smiled. “Because I’ll hurt them first.”

Schwab has crafted a character with a single, loose thread connecting him to the rest of humanity, and somehow it’s just enough to make us like him, even against our better judgment.

The book is cleverly crafted, building toward Victor and Eli’s inevitable final clash while interspersing flashbacks that describe how the characters acquired their powers and, more importantly, provide insight as to how these powers have illuminated character traits that weren’t quite as disastrous when they weren’t ExtraOrdinary. This non-linear storytelling style allows Schwab to slowly ratchet up the tension, beginning with two of the main characters digging up a corpse in the book’s opening scene.

The result is a book that feels like the best of comic books such as Sandman and Watchman, with all the patient contemplation the novel format allows. There’s the mythmaking and over-the-top storytelling of comic books, as well as a certain plausibility and serious consideration of the human condition. In other words, it’s smart and entertaining – the best of both worlds.

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Rating: 9.8/10 (5 votes cast)
Vicious by V. E. Schwab, 9.8 out of 10 based on 5 ratings
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2 Comments

  1. […] This week I was lucky enough to interview an author that will inevitably be challenging for one of the top spots on 2014’s ‘best SFF book of the year’ lists in the UK. That author is V.E. Schwab and the book I’m thinking of specifically is Vicious, which we awarded 9/10 in this review. […]

  2. […] Back in September I posted my review of V.E. Schwab’s VICIOUS at Fantasy-Faction.com: http://fantasy-faction.com/2014/vicious-by-v-e-schwab. […]

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