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?
This novel got a lot of attention in the lead-up to its publication, and the attention has barely wained (the paperback edition came out a couple of weeks ago). I held off reading it for some time, largely because I have cooled to super-hero novels (each one I’ve read has been something of a disappointment). With Vicious, though, the hype is entirely justified. If you read only one super-hero novel, make it this one. If you only read one fantastical novel, make it this one. It’s marvellous.
This just the kind of super-hero novel I’ve been waiting for: not only is it really very well written, but the story is gripping and engaging, and offers a few nods towards the sub-genre’s convention without slavishly following in the all-too-well-trodden pathway others have already forged. All of the characters are nuanced and complex. The two nemeses – Victor and Eli – so different in abilities and worldview, are fantastically written. Victor is easily the star, a character who lives by necessity, nature and circumstance in the greyest of grey areas. His companions are aiding him in his vendetta. Eli, conflicted and ultimately turned delusional upon acquiring powers, offers an interesting foil – he’s clearly mad, but his impression and psychology are not difficult to grasp or seem realistic (up to a point, of course). Even the main characters’ relationships with their allies is interesting – exploitative, reliant, perhaps affectionate.
The ‘science’ behind the development of super-powers is nicely done, not over-detailed, but just enough that it’s not completely ridiculous. It all makes for a very interesting look at the uses and abuses of science, too, and a little bit about the nature of God and belief. The two main characters take decided different views on what the powers mean and where they really come from.
There is some action, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the story. Ultimately, the personal contest is not won by strength of arms – instead, Victor’s planning and numbness, Eli’s single-minded self-appointed quest, and an awful lot of cunning and sneak win the day. This, for me, was such a welcome development – super-hero comics rely too much on the Who Can Hit Hardest solution to storytelling (especially Superman, sadly). Schwab instead offers us a thought-provoking novel about power, friendship, obsession. To begin with, it gave me the impression that it might end up being a bit slow as a result – but, I soon realized that I was blitzing through it, utterly engrossed. The frequent switching between the present timeline and past also worried me at the beginning, but I quickly got used to the rhythm of the story, and loved it.
In some ways, I imagine this is what Brilliant was meant to be – that comic series, written by Brian Michael Bendis, shares a core story component (college kids manage to give themselves super-powers, the shit hits the fan), but come at the issues and challenges from different angles. Not only that, Bendis hasn’t thus-far been up to the task, whereas Schwab conquerors it perfectly. She is also just an infinitely better writer and story-teller.
Much has already been written about Vicious. It is fantastic. Read it. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and it certainly exceeded my expectations. Very highly recommended.
Vicious is published in North America by Tor Books and in the UK by Titan Books. Schwab’s follow up, A Darker Shade of Magic, is also out now and I bought it before I had even hit the halfway mark of Vicious. It is also published by Tor Books in North America and Titan Books in the UK.