Review of Vicious by

Book cover for Vicious

This one took a while to start to work for me, and I’m not sure it really ever did. Vicious is one of those novels where I can tell that V.E. Schwab knows her stuff. That is, the writing here is quality; the plot is top-notch, the characterization is exemplary. Nevertheless, there is something about her style, something about the tenor or tone or theme of the book, that left me cold. And so this is a review where I can sing praises for this novel’s technical achievements, but as a work of art it left me wanting.

Told for the most part in a split timeline narrative, with flashbacks to ten years prior mixed in with the present day, Vicious follows 2 men who successfully turn themselves into ExtraOrdinary people, or EOs. Their transformations create a rift in their relationship that results in one of them going to prison and the other believing it is his duty to remove EOs from the world, as they are an affront to God. Now, a reckoning comes: they will reunite, fight, and one of them won’t be walking away.

As far as plot goes, like I said in my intro, it is all here. Schwab has very clearly planned and intricately imagined every moment, right down to Victor and Eli’s confrontation, and it pays off. Despite my coolness towards the book, even I was getting tense and turning pages faster as we approached the climax.

Additionally, Schwab has a good core premise here. Eli’s fixation with being the only one who is different, with the idea that an EO comes back to life “wrong” and therefore is an aberration, it’s not necessarily original, but she conceptualizes it in a believable and interesting way. Eli’s saviour/god complexes make him a potent villain, while Victor’s brusque fatalism makes him a good anti-hero.

Where this book doesn’t work for me is in the heart of it all. I just didn’t care about any of these characters (no, not even Sydney). I blame the structure of the novel—the jumping back and forth in time didn’t work for me from the beginning—but even if the narrative were linear, I’m not sure that would have fixed it for me, because young Victor was still a dick. More importantly, because the plot is so laser-focused on Victor-versus-Eli, because all of the backstory is mostly told rather than shown in an attempt to fill us in on how these characters got to now, this novel really lacks the depth of context that we often refer to as worldbuilding.

We have the barest of hints that, in this world, some people know about EOs (Detective Stell is an example), but most people don’t believe. However, the paucity of side characters and Schwab’s avoidance of scenes extraneous to the main plot make it difficult for me to feel invested in this universe. Victor’s parents remain abstract ideas rather than real people. Mitch’s past, presented to me in a single rushed chapter that really doesn’t satisfy me, is an abstraction designed to make him the character he needs to be.

Maybe this all gets fleshed out more in the next book of the series. Cool. But the first book hasn’t sold me that this is a world I want to know more about. I’m really glad so many people I know enjoyed this one—I don’t want to condemn this book as bad—but this is a great example of something that turned out to be not my cup of tea.

Engagement

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