VE Schwab is otherwise known as YA author Victoria Schwab, and in her first adult novel, she tackles that in vogue comic book theme: the reinvention of the superhero. And clearly she knows her superhero folklore, because Vicious takes the familiar tropes of villain and hero battling to the death, and puts an interesting, if not entirely successful, spin on them.

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.

Vicious is a book about a showdown between enemies and how we got to that showdown, because once, they were the best of friends. It is the origin tale, but not just of the main protagonists, but of all the superheroes in Schwab’s world. Only they’re not called heroes – and there’s a very good reason for that – but EO’s. ExtraOrdinary. It’s because they’re not good or evil – superhero or supervillain – but about each character’s perspective of what is the right thing. So we have the traditional hero and villain both believing in the good of what they are doing.

Eli and Victor are students writing their research dissertations. Victor is working on adrenaline, while Eli is thinking, theoretically, about EOs. Are they born or are they made? And if the latter, how? They decide that near-death experiences (NDEs) are the catalyst, and before you can say ‘Holy Cow, Batman’, they’ve only gone and become EOs. Eli heals instantly, while Victor, initially, learns that he can take away pain. It seems that the manner of the NDE and what you were thinking about at the time affects the ability you have. However, not all goes well with Victor’s rebirth and tragedy strikes. And now the best friends are traditional superhero enemies. Except both believe that they’re the hero. The main narrative comes from Victor’s perspective and although his power is built on a deception and death, he believes he is the good guy. Eli believes Victor, and all other EOs are bad guys.

This whole portion of the story took place ten years ago. It is intercut with more recent developments in part one of the book, when we meet Mitch, Sydney and Serena. The latter are sisters who have again undergone NDEs and have spectacular abilities. However, they don’t feel like sisters anymore and have joined opposite sides. Which is the key. Schwab suggests that when these characters come back from the edge of death, something has changed. Maybe they’re not the same people any more. There appears to be an immediate psychological change in a person when they become an EO. So the back story continues and we catch up with time until the final showdown at midnight in part 2 of the book. All the while, blood is spilled and people die. And all the while, not a costume or a mask in sight.

Vicious is an entertaining enough read and a decent concept, and yet it isn’t a great novel. I think Schwab over-writes it. She tells the reader too much, explaining everything. (A line, “A shadow, distorted by age instead of sun” is a good example – she could have stopped at age as the reader knows shadows are cast by the sun). She doesn’t trust the reader. Maybe she is writing it for those who aren’t superhero fans? Everything is over-explained and there is an over-abundance of italicised words which eventually becomes annoying. I also don’t buy the world-building. So, a cop in every city knows about EOs but there seems to be very little public awareness or impact. Where are the investigative journalists and the rogue EOs who are seen in public? However, the climax is enjoyable and the characters are all interesting. What Schwab does really well is to twist the traditional superhero tropes – their motivations – and introduces a valid and original origin theory for each EO. You become really interested in what happens to Eli, Victor, the sisters, and even some of the minor characters. You empathise with their shades of grey and you believe that they are being honest with themselves. Which made Vicious a frustrating read. Interesting characters and great ideas in a decent if flawed world, all slightly over-written. Fun, good but not quite great.

AUTHOR: V.E. Schwab
PUBLISHER: Titan Books (UK)

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: