As college students, Victor Vale and Eliot Cardale were close friends with a competitive streak and an undercurrent of disapproval and frustration. They were friends more because they complemented each other in ways no one else could rather than any real affection. For their culminating project, they focus their research on EOs, ExtraOrdinary people with superhuman abilities. Most people are sceptical of the existence of EOs, and so are they until the science starts to make sense. Soon enough, they unlock the secret to becoming an EO, and everything goes south. By the time they are both powered up, a bunch of people are dead, Eli has disappeared, and Victor is locked away in prison.
Ten years later, Victor breaks free with the help of his supremely unlucky cellmate Mitch. While Victor spent the last decade honing his painful powers, Eli used his power to kill other EOs. With the help of Serena, a mind-controlling EO, Eli uses the police to hunt down rogue EOs, including Serena’s twelve-year-old sister Sydney. After a botched murder attempt, Sydney escapes into the night and unexpectedly runs straight into Victor’s arms. Victor wants revenge on Eli, and when he encounters Sydney, a plan percolates. As the nemeses consolidate power and prepare for the final strike, everyone else is swept up in their wake.
There’s a reason this series is called “Villains.” Victor and Eli each believe themselves to be the hero and the other the villain, but in truth, they’re both terrible people hoping for cruel ends to justify their brutal means. They aren’t evil to the bone, but then again few villains are. For every Joker there are a dozen Poison Ivys. Even Thanos and Killmonger, as bloodthirsty as they are, can wave away their violence in the name their version of justice.
Victor goes after Eli as payback and Eli kills other EOs to solidify his position of dominance. Everything else—stopping Eli’s slaughter, protecting humans from EO outbursts—are the side dishes to the main course. Victor is certainly more aware of his stance than Eli, who has convinced himself that it’s his God-given duty to murder EOs until the entire community is eradicated. Eli wants, no, needs to be the hero “bloodying his hands and his soul to set the world right,” whereas Victor rightly sees that there’s little difference between Eli’s version of heroic and Victor’s version of villainy: “Someone could call themselves a hero and still walk around killing dozens. Someone else could be labelled a villain for trying to stop them. Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.”
Character development is one of the things Schwab is best at, and all those skills are on display in Vicious. In lesser hands, Victor and Eli would be bad guys who do bad things to bad people. It’s an old trope done to death. Schwab, however, imbues every character no matter how minor with heart and soul. Victor and Eli aren’t just villains, they’re people making very specific choices. They’re men, complicated, toxic, petty, and angry, but also thoughtful and aware. Neither were thrust on their paths by the hands of fate. Instead, they set their own courses because they wanted to because they could, because they liked it. Being EOs gives them an easy excuse to be as awful as they want, but even before their powers, they weren’t especially pleasant people. Schwab pours nuance into each character, breaking them out of the trope mould and shaping them into something wholly unique. That delicate touch is what keeps the novel from becoming unrelentingly bleak.
Where other authors might take the easy way out, Schwab never does. She tortures the hell out of her cinnamon rolls and makes them better characters for it. If they get a happy ending, it’s because they worked for it. She tightens the vice on her characters from the first page, offers them a few outs only to deny them right as they accept, and pummels them until they think they have nothing left to give. And because of that, her stories are tight, taut, and tense. Trying to read Vicious at night right before bed was poor decision-making on my part. Every night I told myself I’d just read a few chapters, and every night I’d blow past that because I simply couldn’t put it down. “Just one more chapter,” became my personal mantra. And when I finally finished it, I was so obsessed I almost flipped back to the beginning to start again.
No review of a V.E. Schwab novel would be complete without talking about her mastery of plot and story structure. Vicious unfolds gradually but deliberately, with secrets revealed as more lies are told. The story runs non-linearly, jumping back and forth between college, prison, escape, and the present, and shades in between. The effect is disorienting but in a thrilling sort of way. Schwab forces you to pay attention and think about what you’ve read. There’s a trail of bread crumbs, but it’s hard to find unless you know what you’re looking for. By the time you get to the end, everything you thought you understood at the beginning is undone and refashioned into a darker, angrier truth.
V.E. Schwab’s Vicious is as sharp as a knife and cold as a corpse. It’s a killer story about power, corruption, and vengeance, but it isn’t drowning in grimdark. Throughout, moments of love and light break through the storm clouds, keeping the story from teetering too far into the irredeemably sinister. I don’t know how else to say “I absolutely loved this book”.
Get it, read it, love it, and thank me later.