V.E. Schwab’s Vicious is a really great take on the superhero genre of stories. Avoiding the standard tropes of people gaining powers and becoming heroes (or villains), it plays with the idea of what having powers does to people and what it even means to be a hero. For those of you who haven’t read the story, I’m warning you now that I’ve put some spoilers into the following review, so while I don’t think I ruin anything major, I definitely to give some things away. So read on at your own risk.
The story opens primarily from the view of Victor Vale and cuts back and forth between his time at college, ten years prior, and the days following his recent escape from prison. On a side note, one of my favorite parts about this book is the non-linear narrative that Schwab uses and the way that it builds the suspense of the story. The view of more characters is also added as the story progresses, and eventually we get a whole view of the action and the background leading up to it from all parties involved.
When the story starts, we find out that Victor went to a prestigious university where he roomed with a man named Eli Cardale. While Eli seems to be quite the golden boy, Victor likes him because he thinks he sees something monstrous, maybe even evil, beneath Eli’s perfectly smiling facade that makes him more interesting. At their college the two of them need to pick a senior thesis, and Eli chooses to study EOs (or ExtraOrdinary people), a subject that Victor becomes fascinated with. Eventually the two of them discover a way to create EOs, and so of course they try the process on themselves.
During his awakening process Victor accidentally kills Eli’s girlfriend, and the girl that he has a crush on, which is what lands him in prison. Eli is the one who helps to put Victor away. In this moment Victor becomes set on a path of revenge while Eli becomes convinced that EOs are both dangerous and inhuman and need to be stopped.
I think one of the most interesting things about Vicious is its take on what it means to be a hero. And I will say, and touch on this later, that I think there is more than one way to interpret the book, which in my opinion is one of the marks of a good story. When I first began reading it, I thought that Victor was the villain of the piece and that this would be a superhero story told from the villain’s point of view. Victor isn’t a particularly nice person, and he is incredibly selfish. He is driven to become an EO after he sees Eli accomplish it because he can’t stand to be a lesser being in the presence of his friend. Then when Eli turns on him, his whole life becomes driven by the need to get revenge on Eli, and of course revenge is an entirely selfish motivation.
On the other side we have Eli. He is a man of faith who comes to see the EOs as something unnatural. He felt that Victor died when he transformed, and he felt a change in himself as well. He thinks that EOs have lost their souls, and that their powers are both against God and a danger to humanity. For this reason he begins hunting down and eliminating them.
Given these motivations for our characters, I find it interesting how the story plays out. Despite motivations that could be considered selfless, it becomes clear that Eli is not a good person either. Ultimately he is a killer who justifies his actions in the context of his greater mission. Victor on the other hand, while self-serving and certainly no less vicious (haha), is in my mind much more sympathetic.
I think you can argue that there really aren’t any heroes in this book. Both Eli and Victor do bad things, though in different ways and for different reasons. I suppose you could also argue that in certain ways Eli could be considered a hero. I disagree with this, but I’d be willing to listen to an argument. However, I think Victor is really the hero of the story.
While his motivations are selfish, Victor actually has many of the trademarks typically associated with a hero. He leaves a very low body count, only harming people when he has to (and killing the woman in the beginning by accident). He also has friends who he helps and protects. While he keeps these friends around due to their usefulness, or at least that’s what he tells himself, he does go out of his way to save them on more than one occasion. Eli, by comparison, doesn’t have any friends at all, and his only companion is someone who he doesn’t like or trust but cannot kill because her EO power allows her to persuade him not to.
Personally I believe that people are defined far more by their actions than by what they say, think, or espouse belief in. And so when I read this story I see Victor as a hero. His actions, by and large, end up being more on the heroic side of the spectrum than Eli’s, despite his motivations. For instance, while Victor’s motivation to stop Eli is purely revenge and Eli’s motivation to kill EOs is to save people, at the end of the day Eli is killing innocent people, and Victor is the person who is in a position to stop him.
So, with my bias of ideology noted, I think it’s interesting that Vicious turns the paradigm of the “selfless hero” on its head, instead creating a selfless character who is villainous and a selfish character who is far more heroic.
I really enjoyed this book as a story, and, as I’ve alluded to, I think it gives some things to think about as well. I definitely recommend it, and I’m looking forward to reading V.E. Schwab’s other adult novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, which was released earlier this year. Judging from this book, I think she’s quite a talent.