V. E. Schwab’s Vicious takes an introspective look at the nature of power and how it can corrupt. Schwab’s writing style has the dark humor of a Neil Gaiman novel set in an alternate universe that reminds the reader of an X-Men comic book.
The novel begins with the origin story of the two main characters. Victor and Eli seem like two ordinary teens when they first meet in their college dorm, but behind their intellectual façades are a few well-hidden sociopathic tendencies. As the years pass, Victor grows jealous of Eli’s ability to get everything Vic wants for himself—from the best grades to the prettiest girl.
Despite their rivalry, Eli’s senior thesis requires Vic’s help as the pair try to make themselves become ExtraOrdinaries (EO), human beings with supernatural abilities. In order to become EOs, Vic and Eli have to die and come back. After some botched attempts, the friends succeed. Eli has the ability to heal himself from any wound, essentially making him immortal. Vic has the ability to control pain, relieving it or inflicting it on others.
When an accident causes Vic to murder Eli’s girlfriend, the two friends become nemeses and begin a decade-long vendetta to destroy each other. But when both Vic and Eli have their own personal agendas, it makes everyone question who is the hero and who is the villain.
Schwab does a good job with characterization throughout the novel. Each character, no matter how briefly they appear in the story, is unique. They are clearly defined by their physical appearances and, in the case of EOs, their powers and limitations.
The EO sisters, Serena and Sydney, are described throughout the novel as looking exactly the same though Serena is much older. However, their supernatural abilities reflect the differences in their personalities. Serena is manipulative and selfish, so she gains the ability to control people’s minds. By contrast, her younger sister Sydney is loyal and loving; she has the ability to restore life to the dead. Schwab’s characterization decisions are very deliberate and they reflect the overall theme of the novel, which is that power can change, heal, or corrupt.
Dominic Rusher, an EO who is only introduced in the last few chapters of the novel, is another example of strong characterization. Schwab gives a very graphic description of Rusher and the brokenness of his body because it is an essential part of how Rusher gained his supernatural ability. Following the IED explosion that destroyed the left side of his body and put him in a coma, Rusher discovered his ability to stop time and walk between time and space in a kind of void. Rusher’s EO ability could be used or abused by either Vic or Eli, but the physical pain Rusher feels all the time prevents him from being able to use his ability to its full potential. Vic uses his power to take away Rusher’s pain and in turn gain his loyalty. Thus, alliances are formed in a very logical way.
The pacing of Schwab’s novel is very fast, with short chapters switching back and forth between several time periods during Vic and Eli’s friendship/rivalry. This plot structure allows Schwab to cover a long span of time and many important events in a way that creates tension and builds suspense.
My one criticism of Schwab’s writing was that she chose to write in the point of view of nearly every character at least once—from major antagonist/protagonists like Vic and Eli, to the minor supporting characters like Mitch. Though seeing the stories’ events through the eyes of Sydney and Serena created some sympathy for the sisters, they were conflicted about the same issues Vic and Eli were fighting over. That is, Vic and Sydney thought that all EOs should be given a chance to live with their abilities, while Eli and Serena thought EOs were an abomination that needed to be destroyed. Switching to additional points of view didn’t add anything new to the novel’s conflict, and in a way I thought it took something away from the immediacy of the conflict I really cared about—the rivalry between Vic and Eli. I think Schwab’s goal was to add another layer of depth and conflict to the EO debate, but the conflict between the sisters was too similar to the argument Vic and Eli had been having all along.
In the end, this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel. Schwab’s Vicious will appeal to readers who enjoy Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, and Kelley Armstrong, as well as fans of comic book superheroes and villain. No matter what you like to read, Schwab’s characterization will have you thinking about Victor and Eli long after you read the last page.
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