Vicious (Vicious Book 1) by V. E. Schwab
Published: September 24, 2013 by Tor
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?
This book is a story of the bad guys vs. the bad guys. Or rather, it's a story about how two young men took different paths, turned into monsters, and ended up as enemies. But the book also makes you question what makes someone bad, how a monster is made, and whether or not such categories mean anything. Quotes from Dumbledore about choices* and Uncle Ben about great power** come to mind when I think about the nuance of this book - but I found Vicious to be refreshing in its avoidance of morals (in both senses of the word).
I feel obliged to mention that this was at first an airplane book for me. I picked it up as a belated Christmas gift to myself the day before flying back to England and as the other books in my carry on bag were hardcovers this was the default choice of reading material for my red-eye flight (I have a strong aversion to reading hardback books outside the safety of my own home - they are too precious to me). It turned out to be quite a lucky stroke as the short chapters and the tightly structured plot made Vicious a perfect book to keep my attention through the night flight when I couldn't sleep. Of course I would never class this with the kind of books you generally find on display at airport book/magazine shops. It's many classes above those mediocre romances and thrillers, and so provided a much more exciting and intriguing read for my travels.
V. E. Schwab, or Victoria Schwab as she is known as for her YA titles, is one of those writers that grows on you. I read A Darker Shade of Magic last year for book club and really loved it, but wasn't completely blown away by its greatness. I've been meaning to pick up some of her other books for a while now, as I was genuinely impressed by her writing (and her prolificacy as a writer - her Twitter feed is a great inspiration for an ambitious work ethic). A Darker Shade of Magic and Vicious are two vastly different books, but one thing they share is the way they continue to grow on you after you read the last page. It's a subtle art - the stories are engrossing and enjoyable in the moment, but what I didn't realise was that they were putting down roots in my imagination, the characters and world growing in vividness through reading and afterward. Schwab's characters are especially compelling in Vicious, which is somewhat surprising given the fact that the two main characters are villains.
Victor and Eli are not likeable characters by any means. In fact throughout the first part of the book I felt like I was reading for plot more than for the two young friends. But as the story unfolded, growing bigger and more complex, the relationship between Victor and Eli became more fascinating, shaped by the consequences of the choices they made as young men. As Victor and Eli are the nucleus of the story most of the focus is on them, somewhat at the expense of the other secondary characters. Of course this is a quite a smart choice - to show how two men are forged into monsters, both by their own choices and by each other as they are inextricably linked despite their rivalry, is a hefty task requiring a lot of the reader's attention. But I still can't help but yearn for more Mitch, more Sydney, more Serena, more Dominic.
The short chapters and the jumping between past and present could sometimes feel a bit jarring, but it also felt quite natural for the reading experience of Vicious to be unsettling. The true test of a book for me is whether or not I think I will return to the story. I can confidently say that I look forward not only to the sequel but also to re-reading this book in order to savour the complex web of humanity and monstrosity that makes Vicious such an unforgettable read.
Final Word: Vicious is compelling, dark, and complex - highly recommended.
* 'It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.' Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
** 'With great power comes great responsibility.' Uncle Ben, from the Spiderman films and comics