Book review

Review: Vicious – V.E. Schwab

Vicious – V.E. Schwab

366 pages| Tor Books| Fantasy/ Paranormal/ Science Fiction

4.5/5 (rounded down to 4/5 on Goodreads)

The digest: a highly entertaining, action-packed, thrilling superhero (or supervillain) novel with an original take on what can go wrong when people with certain… abilities come to loggerheads. Take a look if you’re a fan of traditional superhero stories, you won’t regret it. I listened to the audiobook narrated by the superb Noah Michael Levine – a memorable performance from a new (to me) narrator I will be sure to look further into.

My history with Schwab has been a mostly positive one. I have listened to the Shades of Magic series twice through on audio and absolutely loved almost every aspect of the storytelling, so when I saw the hype for Vengeful (the sequel of Vicious) I knew I had to get stuck in sooner rather than later. For anyone who has listened to the SoM series before, be aware that the narrator for this book is different to that series’ duo (Michael Kramer & Kate Reading).

From the book’s Goodreads page:

“Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?”

Schwab’s writing is, as usual, clean and efficient. She expertly conveys her story in such a compelling way that I often found myself swept up in the action as if watching a movie. Unlike most superhero movies, however, the plot is far from shallow and there truly is a lot to lose as far as both viewpoints are concerned. I felt like the characters were clearly distinguishable for the most part, and that the powers were distinct enough from each other as to not be boring. Having said this, I found the lack of variety of powers discussed to be a bit disappointing and off the top of my head I can only think of five abilities that the EOs have. A larger selection would have been welcome, and the author hints at them at a few points in the story but I’d love to see more demonstrated in Vengeful (Villains #2).

The intensity of the plot allows Schwab to condense a mass of information into only a few hundred pages, encouraging an in-depth exploration of most of the main cast without an info-dump style breakdown. I appreciate Schwab’s efforts to tell us the characters’ backstories and wish that other authors would follow suit as too often we get piecemeal specs of information which can lead to a loss of interest. Vicious follows a rather tense set of events (no spoilers) set across two main timelines and two versions of the same events, whilst shorter passages delve into the history of the supporting cast. The plot isn’t groundbreaking and you will spot familiar tropes, but I’d be lying if I said the events are even slightly forgettable. It’s difficult to discuss some things without ruining certain elements of the story, but I am led to believe that what we aren’t given in this novel is more than made up for the Vengeful – something I am very much looking forward to. Eli and Victor are easily two of my favourite new main characters from books I have read in 2018, and I can’t wait to see what happens in future books. From the supporting cast, I can safely say that there are a couple of people I will most likely remember for a long time – yet another example of Schwab’s impressive storytelling skills.

This intensity is perpetuated almost entirely by the need for revenge. Any discussion of this need will, i m tn opinion, fail to fully capture what Schwab creates in this novel, so I urge anyone even slightly interested in a less than traditional superhero tale delve into this story world immediately. It is so refreshing to see such a compelling pair of anti heroes work so well and act so convincingly as Eli and Victor do here.

This leads us on to the general worldbuilding, and it is here that I think the novel falls a bit short of Schwab’s other works. Vicious basically takes place in a secondary setting a world and society almost identical to ours apart from these EO’s abilities. For me, I would have preferred there to be either a larger divide between our world and the fictional one, or for there to be a more clearly thought-out crossover. In comparison, the SoM series is set across different versions of London with different histories to one another, different classes of characters, different… everything. There is a fair variety of different locations and the reliance on some familiar ideas (e.g. a bar, a prison, a warehouse) lend themselves well to the author’s method of storytelling. I understand that the novel is very much character-driven and in-depth descriptions wouldn’t really fit too well, but information is a bit too sparse in parts for me to let it slide.

The main annoyance I have in both the worldbuilding and the character development is just how easily non-EOs suddenly accept the existence of almost magical citizens without going bananas. Schwab does try to combat this but I found her reasoning to be more than a little flimsy, and a more convincing argument would have really helped with my immersion in the storyworld. The same can be said about most other stories of a similar ilk, but just because the issue is common does not stop it from being an issue. Gotham’s citizens are more than happy to accept a caped crusader and a crazed bloke in a clown outfit, so I won’t be too harsh on Schwab.

Vicious was one of the most entertaining books I have read so far in 2018, but its few small niggles mean that I’m rating it at a 4.5/5 (rounded down to 4/5 on Goodreads). It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t for everyone, but for fans of superhero media and a solid mixture of action and character development I cannot recommend it highly enough. For me, originality and depth are two of the most important aspects of any story (be it written word, performative drama, or video games), which is why this book falls just a bit short of other favourites of 2018.

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