Review of Vicious (by VE Schwab)

Okay, everything about this review is unusual. The review is long (sorry! I had a lot to discuss, on both sides of the spoiler warning). The novel is an adult novel, though a lot of the flashback is set in a uni with the characters aged only two or three years older than me. And I read the book in three days.

Yup, you read that correctly. This was one of those books.

Let me say firstly that, right from the beginning, this was one of those books I knew I needed to have. To hold. And now I have a print copy, I don’t regret the extra money or shipping time at all.

vicious-book-cover-v-e-schwabVicious by VE Schwab came out in the US in September 2013, and the UK paperback came out in January. (Another unusual move by me, since I usually wait a year before reading ‘new’ books.)

What started as a senior thesis on the possible existence of ExtraOrdinaries – people with, to dress it up, superpowers – turned into an experiment testing the boundaries of human adrenalin. Ten years later, Victor’s broken out of jail to find his college roommate, Eli. The reason? Their experiment succeeded, but now Eli’s bent on destroying every other ExtraOrdinary – including Victor and a young girl with deathly cold skin and a habit for trouble.

(Summary by me. It’s good practise.)

Note: this review doesn’t really have spoilers until the capital spoilers bit.

Things I loved:

Victor, protagonist. I don’t read a lot of books with anti-heros, so I can’t compare, but Schwab does a brilliant job of removing the cliché super-powered bad guy, removing most of the cliché villain reasons and giving us a truly human character. A lot of Victor’s motives are powered by, firstly, jealousy and a desire for rightful recognition, and, later, intense revenge for betrayal, but this is what makes him the ideal anti-hero. He knows ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; he just twists them so he can create. He’s almost a modern Frankenstein. Calculatingly brilliant.

Victor wondered about lots of things. He wondered about himself (whether he was broken, or special, or better, or worse) and about other people (whether they were all really as stupid as they seemed).

In that way, I relate a lot to Victor. Feeling, not feeling; understanding; being locked within the prison of my own mind. Broken or special… Who knows?

The setting. Firstly – the name of the university and town, Lockland and Merit, respectively. I’ve been trying to think of a name for the fictional university in which an NA romance I’m planning will be set, but it escapes me. The lunch area shortened to ‘LIDS’ reminds me of my friend’s college, where their eatery is called The Loaf; the shortening is so typical of new adults.

In addition, whilst there’s not much explicitly said about the visuals of the university, one gets a feel for it through the guys’ eyes. Also, the alternate universe, the like-ours-but-not is handled so well. Believe me, I know how hard it is to create a like-but-not world.

The black humour. And, boy, there’s a lot of it. Victor’s voice – his coldness, his cynicism – is gripping and appropriate for the overall feel of the novel. Something about the tone is morbidly fascinating.

The pacing. It wasn’t too fast and it wasn’t too slow. I wanted more and I snapped it up easily. Hence the short reading time. 😉

Schwab handles her prose in a tight, elegant manner, so that styles I normally despise read naturally. The prose skips back and forth between the present day actions and the past, background of the two ex-friends ‘ten years ago at Lockland University’. The writing is deliberately set up so that certain plot twists are revealed through the characters’ present-day contemplation, yet leave enough space for the reader to wonder. For instance, we know right from the beginning that both boys gained ExtraOrdinary gifts, but not how or why, and the pieces are revealed through tense back-and-forth. It’s almost a whole other story. And that’s a good thing.

Of course, as with every countdown, the tension is ramped up by the time ticking on. The days – and the chapter labels saying their times – move forward, but the prose does feel as if it is building back to the showdown…

I had no favourite characters because each have their own unique compositions. From the special to the unusual, I could praise any of the MCs and SCs in terms of both development and stability.

There is also a small romance triangle at one point. I refrain from calling it a love triangle because it’s more of the guy-in-love-with-his-friend’s-girl trope. And it’s introduced with the brilliant apophasis ‘He was not in love with Angie Knight. She did not belong to him.’ The thing about Angie is that she never really felt anything more than friendship for Victor whilst he evidently cared for her, though I cannot say how much she felt for Eli amongst the smooching. In actuality, I think Victor’s passion added to the story – villains can be loveless (like my Rion), but they can also get lonely. Back then, Victor was bound to feel something like this.

Her face was red from track, and his was red from her…

Although it may be considered a triangle or a trope, I felt that there was so much realism in the way Victor told the parts of the story involving Angie and Eli. Jealousy, yes, but it was real jealousy. The kind of anger, envy, confusion he felt rings so true.  Gah, so real!

Things I wasn’t so keen on:

At times, especially the beginning, I felt the writing lapsed into headhopping, so, instead of reading in the eyes of one character, we were hearing the thoughts of others. I preferred the Lockland story for the reason that I knew I was seeing the scene through Victor’s eyes definitely. In a similar way, I guess I’d have preferred not to have chopping and changing POVs during the last few chapters. Yes, they added to the shock and other dramatic emotions of all the characters, but we didn’t really need to witness each character’s reaction directly. Thinking about it, the POVs of over five characters featured in the entire novel. Conversely, I found very few moments where the POV changed mid-chapter and left me ignorant to whom the camera was pointed.

A lot of the pacing relied on the mystery of EOs – who, how and why. Once the big Sydney reveal passed and the present became more the focus, the pacing dragged. Luckily, after the middle, it built up again.

The interesting bits. SPOILERS:

Angie’s death! Noo! I was shocked when she died. From the blurb, I had thought that she’d be assisting Eli in his assassinations of the other EOs (excuse me for being presumptive. In hindsight, Angie wouldn’t be the type. But, you never know; she could have been flipped evil). To be fair, I wasn’t invested in her as much as I probably should have been meant to, but I appreciated her as a woman [and] scientist, as a curly redhead with a sharp wit and mind. I didn’t cry for her, but I did feel sad that she had to go for the sake of plot.

Surprisingly, I didn’t feel uncomfortable when Eli and Victor committed suicide to give them their powers. For the idea of science, it worked. Too, it was written so well – not focusing on the suicide, but on the boys’ determination to pass through suicide to life again.

I didn’t get it straight away that Eli was The Boyfriend with the gun, yet I had a feeling about five chapters before it was mentioned that Eli had shot Sydney. Funny how the same threads don’t knot together, eh?

Some reviewers have said that Eli’s change into mad EO-slayer was too sudden, but I don’t think he’s that sort of ‘villain’ (I’m not sure how loosely I’m using this term here) in the book – it’s not the type of story with villains or saints. Put yourself in his position – he lost the woman he loves to his best friend’s mad experiment; and, as Eli said, dying changed him. Maybe it took away his fear to remove the world’s unnatural talents. But he’d, as he said, always had that bent inside him – that something missing. True to life, we all have a different, unsettling side, and for some it doesn’t take much pressure to come out. Maybe hesitance was his…his saving Grace?

Why didn’t the police catch Eli before Serena careened onto the scene? He was careful – and a genius – but one would’ve thought that the police would’ve been onto him after Professor Lyle’s death. “Are you coming or going?” Ha – wouldn’t that have been obvious? Detective Snell is a character who annoys me. He should have seen beyond Eli’s acting. Yet…no one ever did… That’s part of Eli’s natural, pre-death ability to charm and wow the crowds with a smile alone. Thinking about it, Eli would never have been a killer had he not already had the skill of being unsettled/unsettling that comes with the killer actions.

Mitch. A fascinating case study of human psychology. Exposed to so many moments of wrong-place-wrong-time, Mitchell Turner has given up because of the blame heaped on him and the ‘curse’ following him by the time he meets Victor. If Mitch has any position in the literary meaning of Vicious, he shows us that one doesn’t have to be an EO to have some sort of ‘aura’ or power – we are all capable of being powerful. Or – one could take Mitch to be the evidence of some natural strain of ExtraOrdinary power in this world, a fully human, not twisted or ‘missing’ genetic evolution. Certainly, he explicitly symbolises that ‘normal’ humans can escape death by normal means (running, trickery, a bullet-proof vest…) – therefore, having powers is not only not preferable, but also not necessary.

Either way, he’s an interesting character to observe. I definitely got to liking him – I gasped aloud both times he ‘died’, and, yeah, I kind of felt cheated when he didn’t, but it was a satisfied feeling of being cheated, if you can comprehend that.

The ending: both predictable and a surprise. Of course, with Sydney on his side, Victor’s death, however deflating for me as a reader and supporter of this MC, was always going to be temporary. On the other hand, it didn’t occur to me that, with Serena’s death, the mind control was gone. And I didn’t feel many anti-climax feelings, though the final chapters poured from one to another too quickly and without that much happening, in terms of temporal progress. Also – however random it was – I didn’t expect the wire cord with which Eli kills Victor. Weird move. 😛

END SPOILERS

My one sad is that I didn’t get the hardback. It has a glorious cover (see above!), almost a scene from the book, an echo, whereas the paperback (the top cover) seems too cliché and straight to mimic the nature of the prose. In a way, it detracted from the smooth comicbook style one expects.

Anyway, I loved the book, yay! I don’t usually like to give five stars, but I couldn’t really find a decent reason to rate this down (is the writing too good?? xD).

The moments that define lives aren’t always obvious. They don’t scream LEDGE, and nine times out of ten, there’s no rope to duck under, no line to cross, no blood pact, no official letter on fancy paper. They aren’t always protracted, heavy with meaning. 

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