Summary from Goodreads:
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?
Ten years ago, college roommates Victor and Eli decided to test a theory that near-death experiences turn people into ExtraOrdinaries (aka EOs, aka superheroes). Turns out they were right, but things didn’t go according to plan. Now in the present day, Victor’s just been released from jail, and he’s out for vengeance at any cost.
Vicious took me completely by surprise. I’ve read The Archived by the same author (under the name Victoria Schwab), but that honestly didn’t prepare me for how awesome this book was going to be. With just the right balance between character development and action, this novel was exceptional.
Probably the best thing about this book was Schwab’s grim characterization. The book’s epigraph, by Joseph Brodsky, really sets the stage: “Life—the way it really is—is a battle not between Bad and Good, but between Bad and Worse.” Because even though Victor is the protagonist of Vicious, he’s not necessarily the “good guy” at all. It’s simply that between him and Eli, Victor is the more rational, sane man. I really loved that these characters didn’t take on traditional black vs. white roles; Victor, Eli, and the other EOs have a lot more subtlety and nuance to them, which gave this book a lot more maturity and complexity.
The characters, their interactions, their motivations, and their actions were my favorite part of Vicious. I could describe at length how impressed and blown away I was by Schwab’s depth of insight into these people. The typical paranormal novel has characters, but this book has people—fully developed, well-rounded, and multifaceted.
The story itself works well, presented in chapters that alternate between the present and various points in Victor/Eli’s past. There are four or five POV characters, and though all these perspectives do sound a bit the same, they’re nevertheless well-written.
But about three-fourths of the way into the book, I had something of a brain blast. Basically, Vicious is The Count of Monte Cristo with superheroes. Man is wrongfully imprisoned and allows hatred to consume him to the point where he’s dead to all other emotion, upon his release he seeks vengeance at whatever cost, manipulating those around him to achieve his end goal, and in the end he must learn to let go of his rage or die, his purpose completed. That last sentence? It applies equally to both Schwab and Dumas’s books.
Now, I’m not saying that V.E. Schwab intentionally derived her story from Dumas. I think the revenge plot is traditional enough that it wasn’t something the author did on purpose. But seeing that very distinct similarity did bring me out of the story, and I found Vicious a bit less enjoyable than I had before, since I was constantly being reminded how closely Victor’s journey resembled Edmond Dantès’s.
Even with the Dumas comparison, I still enjoyed this book a lot, and I think it has far more positive qualities than negative. Vicious is a smart, intricate superhero novel with unbelievably amazing characterization. That was enough to have me hooked, but with the added bonus of Schwab’s skillful prose, this book was really something fantastic.