Book Review: Vicious
After reading (and immensely enjoying) V.E. Schwab's Shades of Magic series, I've begun a tour through her other books. The first one I decided to pick up was Vicious, in part because I have a deep and abiding love of villains (and in part because she's working on the sequel right now). It will shock no one, then, to learn that I'm now harboring a crush on Victor Vale.
Vicious is the story of two men: Victor Vale and Eli Ever, former college best friends turned deadly rivals. In college, the two men explored the circumstances around the creation of ExtraOrdinaries (EOs) and made a shocking conclusion: EOs can be created by near-death experiences. They put that knowledge to the test, turning themselves both into EOs, but a tragic accident causes them to become enemies and lands Victor in prison. When Victor finally escapes, he's out for revenge.
Victor Vale is one of my new favorite characters. I have a bad tendency to root for the villain in stories anyway, and since Eli poses as the "hero" to most people, Victor takes on that monniker as his opposition. Victor is highly intelligent and borders on sociopathic even before he becomes an EO, and it's fascinating to watch his internal monologue. (In one present-day scene, he even notes that he's had to construct a social guide details which actions are acceptable and which aren't.)
He's not a good person, not remotely, yet he has nuance to his character. We can empathize with his angry relationship with his parents (and his delightfully unique habit of blacking out their books to create angst-ridden poetry). He actually seems to care about Sydney, at least to a point. And he's trying to stop a man who has taken it as his mission to kill every other EO on the planet, so in a way, he's saving lives by getting revenge on Eli.
It doesn't help Victor's moral compass that his power is the ability to control/manipulate pain. I have to commend Schwab for her originality; there's a lot of superhero "standard" powers that she could have trotted out, like super strength or flying. But she makes a point of choosing powers that relate to the way the character "died," and in Victor's case, that means pain control. Eli heals. Serena and Sydney, the two female supporting characters, are abnormally persuasive and can raise the dead, respectively. Schwab then takes that one step farther by finding inventive ways for those powers to impact the plot.
At its core, this book is an exploration of what makes a hero heroic and what makes a villain villainous. Eli poses as the hero publicly, the golden boy who saves a bank, and in his mind, he's following a God-given mission. But he's still killing people, many of whom have done nothing wrong. On the surface, Victor is the villain; he has killed in the past (albeit accidentally) and he's out for a selfish motivation of revenge. He uses people to get what he wants. Yet he uses his powers for good at times, to save others from their pain, he takes care of Sydney and his former cellmate, and by removing Eli, he could save a lot of lives. So tell me: who is the villain and who is the hero?
The moral grayness at the heart of this book is what gives it the power it has and what makes it such a unique tale. It's a superhero story that doesn't feel like a traditional superhero story, because neither of the characters are true heroes. And that's perfectly OK with me, because that built-in moral dilemma keeps you on your toes throughout the novel and makes for a hell of a fun ride.
Speaking of which, this book moves fast. There are obvious reasons why - most of the chapters only run a few pages long, and it's not a long book, so it never dallies too much in any one place. That being said, the short chapters combined with the time skips (it bounces back and forth between the college years and the present day, with small interludes in the interveneing time) and the high number of POVs make the narrative feel disjointed in places. It's nothing super annoying and it doesn't do much to diminish the fun of reading Vicious, but it threw me out of the story in a few places.
Final verdict? A lot of fun and definitely something I'd recommend if you're looking for a quick, enjoyable read with interesting themes. I'm so dialed in for Vengeful, the sequel Schwab is writing. And can we get a movie of this already? I need to see Victor Vale on-screen!