I’m a comic book fan from way back. I learned to read in four colors. I spent thousands of dollars of allowance money on the adventures of my favorite heroes and villains up until I graduated high school and moved on to other things. I’ve read a few books in the superhero genre, but they are few and far between. But when I read the blurb for Victoria Schwab’s Vicious, I knew I had to give the book a read. Schwab’s story of two college friends whose quest to become Extra-Ordinary not only changes them both in astonishing ways but propels them toward an eventual collision that is all but guaranteed to leave one of them in the grave. Schwab’s exploration of the nature of good and evil and heroes and villains kept me turning pages into the wee hours and challenged my expectations of the level of realism that can be brought to the four-color genre.
Vicious is the story of Victor Vale and Eli Ever, two incredibly gifted college students whose unexpected friendship is based on the shared recognition of something sinister brewing beneath their façade of camaraderie and intellectual competition. When the pair’s graduate thesis to prove not only the existence of E.O.’s; extra ordinary people who have developed inhuman abilities, but that they can be made takes a deadly turn both men find themselves both gifted and cursed by their experiments. Their reckless experimentation shatters their friendship and places them both on a path of destruction with each other as the final target.
Schwab wisely grounds her tale of supermen at war with one another with a healthy dose of psychology and philosophy. At its heart,Vicious is about what it means to be a hero and by extension a villain. By deft manipulation of the tropes of the comic books from which this story draws its inspiration, Schwab is able to keep both her protagonist and antagonist firmly planted in the gray area between the poles of heroism and villainy. Neither Victor nor Eli can be called heroes in anything but the loosest sense, but Schwab manages to make the readers understand them, sympathize with them, and be completely invested in their fates. There is not an ounce of the idealism of a Superman or Spiderman in these characters, no touching morality along the lines of “With great power comes great responsibility”, instead I was reminded of Lev Grossman’s excellent The Magicians whose guiding principle seemed to be that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Schwab’s characters are more human than super, and that suits the gritty tone of this tale of vengeance just fine.
Even the secondary characters are painted in grayer tones than readers might expect. The mechanism that creates E.O.’s requires a near death experience, and the brush with death seems to change the core of each of the extra-ordinaries we encounter far beyond simply giving them superhuman abilities. The exploration of these themes is the crux of the narrative. Most of the supporting characters are given a point of view chapter or two allowing Schwab to demonstrate that being more than human, makes these characters somehow less than human at the same time. Both Eli and Victor have sidekicks, the Clark sisters, Sydney and Serena whose powers are arguably the most powerful in the novel and are far more than simple tools in the machinations of the principle characters. I’d venture that the characterization of both women are more nuanced and realized than their male counterparts and I couldn’t help but wish they had gotten more page time.
The plot structure of Vicious is challenging, jumping back and forth over a period of ten years, showing the genesis of the conflict between Victor and Eli side by side with the events in the present timeline. In the hands of a lesser author, this could have been distracting or confusing, but Schwab handles it seamlessly. The back story informs and enriches the conflict and informs the motivations and actions of the characters. The pacing is excellent, never bogging down in the past for too long.
In conclusion, Vicious was an easy, engaging read with far more depth than its four color roots may imply. Schwab turns what could easily have been an exercise is empty pyrotechnics and macho posturing into a meditation on power and its impact on the powerful with a cast of characters that beg for further exploration. Schwab has brought a level of depth to the concept and has propelled herself on to this reviewers list of authors to watch.