Saturday, January 2, 2021

Vicious by V.E. Schwab Review

Photo credit: Amazon.com.

Note: This review has some spoilers, but most of the important details are left vague.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab is a superhero story about Victor Vale and Eli Cardale, two people who ostensibly have it all—both are handsome, financially secure, white, geniuses who have garnered enough intellectual respect that their professors draw on their expertise. In reality, however, they are tortured by their desire to test the limits of reality. As Cardale and Vale discover as part of an undergraduate thesis, superpowers do exist, and the key to unlocking them is to die, albeit not permanently. They of course succeed in their quest to attain powers for themselves, but things go drastically wrong, and former friends Victor and Eli become mortal enemies who seek to exact vengeance on the other. 

As far as superhero origin stories go, this is near perfect. Schwab is an excellent writer who employs short chapters and multiple perspectives to keep the reader interested. Roughly speaking, the book is divided into three parts. The first delivers the story from Victor's perspective, the second from Eli's. The third switches between each before they inevitably intertwine in what is both the climax and ending of the story, which concludes with a cliffhanger setting up the sequel.

While reading I was thoroughly engrossed. Schwab's portrayal of college, which is reminiscent of what I remember from the nineties movie With Honors, isn't exactly realistic, but it does feel engaging and somewhat relatable (more on that later). And, though both protagonists are villainous in nature, I managed to sympathize with each and their various motivations. By the end of the book part of me was rooting for and against both Victor and Eli.  

In terms of how the book stands as a superhero story, I'd say it represents a welcome breath of fresh air compared to what we see in your average Marvel and DC movie. In the Vicious universe, getting a power and becoming an EO (ExtraOrdinary) essentially requires you to sacrifice part of your soul, leaving you vulnerable physically or psychologically. And everyone, as far as I can tell, loses their ability to empathize with others to an extent. People with powers are broken and usually keep to themselves. Those who use their powers frequently do so to advance their own goals rather than for the public good. 

Driving Vicious at its core is the tension between how the characters perceive themselves, and how Schwab chooses to write them. Victor and Eli are written as protagonist and antagonist, but the characters see themselves as antagonist and protagonist. Readers must come to their own conclusion as to who's cause they'll identify with more. As I hinted at earlier, I began the book firmly on Victor's side, but by the end was empathizing with Eli. Neither is perfect, and that's part of the fun. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Vicious and have already purchased the sequel. That said, I do have two critiques. The first relates to the supporting characters, Sydney and Serena Clarke. Each is equipped with an amazing power—Sydney can raise the dead and Serena can control minds. Schwab wrote them in as accomplices to Victor and Eli—in fact, their plans really only work if they have access to Sydney and Serena's powers. They are so powerful that the story breaks down if you think about it too deeply. If Sydney and Serena worked together (the reason why they don't is rather weak), I doubt anyone could stop them. I would have preferred to see Victor and Eli scheme against each other without access to Sydney and Serena, if only because it would make for a more interesting story. 

My other critique relates to Victor and Eli, or rather, how they are characterized. Victor is the son of famous parents and the likely recipient of massive amounts of intergenerational wealth. Despite that, he likes to roleplay the part of the brooding poet who wishes there were more to life. He finds purpose in poking and prodding his friend Eli, until he too is miserable. To me at least, it was unbelievable to think that two white male geniuses set for life are going to be so displeased with their situations that their only fulfillment comes from the idea of killing themselves in the quest for powers. 

I might have re-written Victor and Eli to not be so stereotypically Ivy League. It is true that Schwab has Eli come from a more troubled background than Victor, but he's still more privileged than the average person (for example, his college tuition is being paid for by his ex-girlfriend's rich father). If someone is going to be pursuing power at the likely cost of their life, there should be a more believable motivator than wanting to prove to their professor just how smart their thesis paper is. Altogether, Victor is more problematic than Eli in terms of how rebellious he is in proportion to how much life has gifted him, but it's close. 

I'm not sure how I would fix this issue, but a good start would be to both acknowledge intersectionality (how race/class/gender/sexuality intersect to shape our experiences) and include more diversity in the story. The college experience depicted in Vicious is not one I or other people from marginalized communities enjoyed. Ironically, it's the only major side character in the story without a power, Mitch, who has a background that screams "this person would be justified in going to extreme lengths to become an EO." Mitch is instead more than happy to look beyond his own needs to be Victor's hacker, shield, and sacrificial lamb (this is unfortunately how a lot of marginalized people are portrayed in pop culture these days—as accessories).

Despite these critiques, I wholeheartedly recommend Vicious to anyone who needs a good story to read during the pandemic. What Schwab has done is create a mature comic book universe with intriguing lore that will appeal to a broad range of demographics. Victor and Eli are strong lead characters, and the book's plot will have you turning pages at a rapid clip. I know that I, for one, am very happy to have found a new series to immerse myself in this year. 

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