OVERALL RATING: ★★★★/5
(Goodreads summary here.)
When I started Vicious, I’ll be honest: I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I knew I was going to at least enjoy it. VE/Victoria Schwab has become one of my favorite authors ever since I cracked open A Darker Shade of Magic last summer. But with Vicious, I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard of lot of differing opinions, although most were positive. One of my close friends had read it, and although we typically have very similar opinions on books, thought it was just okay. I, on the other hand, absolutely LOVED it.
From the get-go, I knew it was going to be right up my alley. Like a lot of science-fiction/fantasy fans, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite classic novels. I love books that explore the debate of human-as-god, particularly the morality of actions that give a single person immense power. I don’t consider myself much of a philosopher, but anything that makes me question my beliefs on a topic has my attention.
As you’ll probably soon come to learn, my favorite characters are morally gray. And these characters are the definition of morally gray (well, except maybe Victor, but we’ll get to that). Villain stories are so incredibly intriguing to me because they give what is perhaps the most forgotten perspective in literature, and, arguably, history. To quote Christopher Vogler at risk of being cliché: “Every villain is a hero of his or her own story.” Why shouldn’t we look at the villain’s motivations? Who says the hero has to have good intentions? The world isn’t black-and-white, so let’s not go around pretending like it is. While the popularity of villain narratives seems to be on the rise, Schwab’s approach to her story is unique because it is, in its entirety, morally gray. While other novels want to reach a conclusion for you, Schwab leaves it completely up to the reader to determine where they stand on what makes a villain the villain.
I love Schwab’s concept of EO’s. It’s such an interesting idea, and she clearly put a lot of thought into the explanation for their existence. She takes what could have been a typical hero origins story and gives it a very mad-scientist feel that was both unusual and disturbing. It really drives the story, especially since the book goes beyond the origins of their abilities and into the aftermath. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the time jumps, but I think they are better executed than most novels that utilize them. I could really see how the story was playing out on both sides – the past and the present – and how the past created the actions of the present. They flow really well together and you didn’t get lost in one or the other.
Vicious is a wonderfully character-driven story. For as much action as there is, particularly at the end, it is ultimately shaped by the people within it. And I learned to love each character in their own way, no matter how twisted they became, so that’s where the core of my review is going to come from. Minor spoilers for pretty much all the characters below.
Victor Vale. Where to even begin. As I mentioned above, he is arguably the most corrupt of all the characters. He is driven solely by his want of revenge and is without a doubt the villain in Eli’s story. And in a lot of ways, he absolutely is the villain. We are never made to believe that he is anything but wholly immoral. From the beginning, he is depicted as someone who doesn’t quite meet society’s standards for a rational, contributing member of society. He has too few feelings, too little empathy for others, too much self-worth and pride. These are classic characteristics of a villain. And yet, despite all that, we see him care for both Mitch and Sydney, no matter how he tries to deny it. That attachment is something we don’t see from Eli after he gets his power, something that is atypical for a villainous character. It humanizes him and makes us question if he’s really all bad. Also, Victor’s actions against Eli lead him to ultimately save EO’s. His retribution ends up saving lives; does that make him less of a villain? It’s a question Schwab raises throughout the book. His intentions can certainly be classified as evil, but he has the added bonus of saving people as he gets his ultimate desire of bringing down Eli. Still, his methods are questionable, and he seems to only want to save EO’s if they can be useful to him. Does the positive effect outweigh the negative cause? We are left to wonder and decide for ourselves.
Eli Ever, on the other hand, is in every way the twisted mind that Victor is meant to be. Throughout the book, we are forced to question Eli’s All-American Boy status the way that Victor does. His privilege in this is exemplified by the fact that he develops an innate sense of righteousness that he excludes himself from. Because of the constant villain-hero duality that presents Victor as the villain, Eli should be the hero. And yet, we can’t buy into that. All of Eli’s beliefs are questionable. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, but even he seems to doubt himself at times. It’s more that he wants to believe he’s doing the right thing, so he forces people into categories of good-and-evil. This contrast with Victor, who realizes that the world can’t be defined like that, is what really establishes Eli’s faults and shortcomings as a “hero.” Unlike Victor, Eli seems to have truly lost his ability to connect with other people on a deeply human level, which gives himself too much of a god-complex that calls a hero’s humanity into question.
Mitch Turner may be my favorite character in the book. He is so wonderfully aware of the blurred lines between right and wrong and yet doesn’t always care. That kind of acknowledgement of wrong but acting on it anyway is one of my favorite aspects of his character. It also brings up the question of a person’s situation. Nothing about Mitch is inherently evil; he is always just in the wrong place at the wrong time or draws the short end of the stick. Does that make his actions evil? I don’t think so. One thing Schwab did particularly well with his character, especially in contrast to Victor and Eli, is the fact that he looks like he should be the most immoral and yet he has the best heart of them all. The descriptions of Victor and Eli tell the reader that nothing seems wrong about them based on their appearances, whereas you would be weary of Mitch if he walked into a room. I think this is a really important theme in the story, of not judging a book by its cover, because it’s what’s on the inside that counts. I know that’s a very stereotypical message, but it makes us question why we believe certain things about certain people.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Serena Clarke when she was first introduced. I wanted to dislike her just on principle: narcissistic, entitled, popular girl with the ability to get everything she wants from people? Sounds like a real villain to me. But as terrible as Serena is, her development later in the book reframed how I think about her. In the end, she does end up saving Sydney, and I don’t think that should be overlooked, no matter how many awful things she had done or caused. She is uncomfortable with killing when directly confronted with it, which gives her a set of traditional morals, however hidden or convoluted. Additionally, she is the only EO that is depicted as growing tired of their powers. Both Victor and Eli never grow weary of theirs and constantly cherish them. Sydney and the other EO’s get past their pain and learn to see the benefits of their abilities. Although she uses them to get what she wants, Serena describes being sick of people always listening to her. It’s a side to superpowers that we rarely see, particularly because compulsion is typically depicted as something that is favorable. It shows that there can be downsides to any ability, even if they initially seem advantageous.
Last, but certainly not least, Ms. Sydney Clarke. I absolutely adore her. She is such a complex, intriguing character. She develops into (yet another) morally gray person because of what she has been through. Like Victor, she wants revenge on Eli for trying to kill her, yet she isn’t defined by that the way Victor is. A lot of it has to do with her being so young, which I think gives her a peculiar role within the story. It helps to show how a person’s, especially a kid’s, morals develop and are influenced by those around them. Because Sydney’s main role models are all of questionable morality, she begins to mirror them.
What did you think of the moral debate ingrained in Vicious? How do you think it will arise again in Vengeful?