Vicious – V.E. Schwab

About the Book

A masterful, twisted tale of ambition, jealousy, betrayal, and superpowers, set in a near-future world.

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.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

In Vicious, V. E. Schwab brings to life a gritty comic-book-style world in vivid prose: a world where gaining superpowers doesn’t automatically lead to heroism, and a time when allegiances are called into question.

368 pages (Hardcover)
Published on September 24, 2013
Published by Tor
Author’s webpage

This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.


Reviewing has some side effects. When you read as many books as I do, it becomes harder and harder to keep me guessing. Plots might impress me; narrative might be spot on, but about 80% of the time, I probably have a rough idea of how the plot is going to unfold by the time I’ve read the first third of the book. With that said, you can probably understand why I cherish books that keep me guessing, and why I want to run up to those authors and hug them for about ten uncomfortable minutes each time I read a book that keeps me on the edge of my seat. It’s a treat, and when you read one-two hundred books a year, it is a rare treat indeed.

Enter: Vicious.

Vicious is one of those books that are hard to pin down. It’s part urban fantasy, part superhero mythos, and all dark, twisted, and wonderful. Vicious tells the story of Victor and Eli, college roommates with a weird codependent, jealousy fueled relationship. Schwab does a great job at setting up these two characters through her narrative. Vicious has a flow that some might need to get used to, but it was well planned by the author. Each chapter tells a story from a different period of history, bringing readers slowly up to the present. Chapters will switch from ten years ago, to a few months ago, to a week ago, to a few days ago, to now.

Never fear, readers, this isn’t as confusing as it sounds. The chapter will tell you how far back (or not) in time you are reading about. Normally a book written like this would bother me. I prefer to go forward in time, not back. Schwab, however, manages to bring history to life and truly gets into the psyche of each character. No one is sacred. Each character is torn apart and put back together a somewhat fractured mirror of what they might have otherwise been. The quest for power, for “otherness” is a powerful one, and her characters pay the price for it. It’s fascinating to get into their heads and see exactly what happened to them that turned them into who they end up being in the second part of the book.

So, not only is Vicious all the things I listed a few paragraphs up, but it is also psychological.

It’s that “nothing is sacred” aspect of the book that really made Schwab hit a homerun for me, it also takes the standard superhero mythos many might be expecting, and turns it on it’s head. Schwab works in a moral gray zone (another characteristic that the books I love all have in common). There is no real “good” or “evil.” Each character has a specific set of goals and while some goals might seem morally more desirable than others, once you learn more of Victor and Eli’s pasts, you’ll probably see that their goals aren’t unlike themselves. Flawed, cracked, frayed around the edges, and mostly for their own benefit (with the side-effect of impacting others). Vicious is a book that subtly hands the reader’s antiheros, and that can be uncomfortable, but I like it when the books I read make me uncomfortable.

As for the superhero mythos, it is there, but it’s much less “super” or “hero” and much more “human” than many readers might be expecting. It could easily be overlooked or unnoticed. Along with Victor and Eli’s history, Schwab takes the characters (and the readers) on a natural evolution. You have to lose it all to have it all, and readers will go through the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly along with the protagonist/antagonist. If you keep the moral gray zone and subtle antihero aspects in mind, it might be easy for you to see how the “superhero” aspect of the book is harder to see than most other aspects. There are some definite sidekicks, but Vicious deals more with “super” and less with “hero” and I love Schwab for that. Admittedly, I’m rather sick of men in tights flying over cities and saving hapless individuals from (insert marauder here). Thankfully, Schwab took something I’m just about as sick of as vampires, and twisted it into something uniquely her own.

Schwab’s writing style is equal parts atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful. With a few words, she brings her characters to life. Their emotions are the reader’s emotions. Due to her superb writing, Vicious is amazingly atmospheric. Contrasted with that are some absolutely beautiful passages that seem incredibly, almost hauntingly eerie when they are infused with the atmosphere that Schwab fills her book with. Schwab’s stunning writing gives the main characters some introspective qualities that really benefitted the book.

“The moments that define lives aren’t always obvious. They don’t always 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.” P. 58

On the other hand, Vicious is definitely a book about Victor and Eli. There are a few side characters thrown in for good measure, but the world and the side characters are definitely back burner. Mind you, that’s not a bad thing. Vicious is a rather selfish tale told of two very selfish individuals, so the back burner is fitting for everyone and everything else.

Vicious is a subtle type of addictive. You learn along with the characters. The first half of the book is full of, “What the hell?” moments (which I love). There is an “Ah ha!” toward the middle that makes the second half a bit more predictable, but no less interesting. Schwab really reworks an old theme here, infusing it with new life. She humanizes the superhero, makes them believable. Despite their broken natures, Victor and Eli are intensely human and that’s where the magic lies with this book. They aren’t obscure figures that obviously don’t exist. Their jealousy, rage, and competitive natures are ugly, and they are an ugliness that we all feel and relate to. Vicious is psychological, deep, and full of believable fantastic. It’s not a reality I’d want to be part of, but Schwab does a superb job at showing readers just how the quest for the extraordinary can change everything.

Part of the thrill of Vicious is that everyone who reads it will take away something different. Vicious stuck to me like glue. V.E. Schwab is firmly stuck on my radar.


5/5 stars


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