Nobody knows what makes someone Extraordinary, but Eliot Cardale and Victor Vale are determined to find out. Once they’ve developed a thesis, the next logical step is to test it. But to become superhuman, they will have to risk everything…
There’s plenty of stories about superheroes, but V E Schwab made an entertaining contribution to the genre with Vicious, her first adult novel (back in the day: this is Throwback Thursday, after all).
It’s clear from the start that Victor Vale may be Extraordinary, but he’s no hero. He’s a murderer recently escaped from jail to settle an old score – and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. While there’s a suggestion that he was wrongfully jailed thanks to Eli, his attitude to the world makes you wonder if it wasn’t the worst place for him…
Eliot Cardale – or Eli Ever, as he calls himself – is just as driven: he’s determined to save the world from the Extraordinaries (by killing them all), convinced that his own Extraordinary power is a gift from God to help him do so. For me, his religious fervour and self-excusing logic make him infinitely creepier than Victor.
As the series title promises, this is a book about villains, not heroes – anti-heroes at best, depending on how your sympathies develop (although part of the fun is just how unsympathetic they are; Schwab walks a fine line, and I suspect it won’t work for everyone).
Vicious delivers the usual entertaining Schwab storyline, told here in a fractured narrative that skips back and forth through time: ten years ago, two months ago, last week, etc. I’ve been finding recently that this sort of hopping about has landed really badly with me, but having relative timestamps instead of absolute dates seems to work just fine. The different periods fill in Victor and Eli’s backstory as roomies at university, vying to be top of the class and collaborating to try and become Extraordinary.
Victor’s desire to capture and hold Eli’s attention is almost cute (and slightly bruising). For the first time in Victor’s life, he seems to have found someone he respects as an equal; of course he’s desperate (not that this is acknowledged) not to have Eli drift off the way his parents did. Unlike Victor, Eli has brilliant social skills – the sort of seemingly natural all-rounder who moves easily through a crowd. It doesn’t stop him being a monster. When it goes wrong, it goes very wrong and Victor is the one who ends up jailed for murder while Eli walks free after actually committing it.
Ten years later, Victor has escaped from jail and the various time hops converge on the night the two meet again to finally deal with their unfinished business. Schwab delivers a well-paced thriller, borrowing liberally from typical ingredients (and yes, I do consider that early death to be fridging, which I wasn’t wild about) but – as usual – winning the day with the strength of her characters.
Victor has few qualms about collateral damage, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his Extraordinary ability of manipulating energy to inflict pain (he’s not literally a walking taser, that’s just the first aspect of his skill that he masters). At least he has few illusions: while Eli has delusions of destiny, Victor knows he’s a bad man out to do bad things. He may have been driven to crime, but I never got the impression that he’d go straight once he got even with Eli.
Cold and calculating though he may be, Victor has an undeniable habit of collecting strays. As the story develops, it’s clear that whatever he may tell himself, he does form attachments – and it’s not hard to see why. His little gang are adorable: Mitch the master hacker is a gentle giant at heart, convinced he’s a curse; and little Sydney Clark starts out as something of a bedraggled kitten utterly betrayed by those she loves, following Victor home because she doesn’t know what else to do.
Eli, meanwhile, is a loner. After all, he’s superior to normal humans and determined to kill the superhumans. Eli has no regard for anyone, and when he does forge an unexpected connection it’s not exactly of his own free will.
…which brings us to Serena Clarke. Beautiful, manipulative, dominating Serena Clarke. Sydney’s big sister is arguably the most powerful Extraordinary of the lot: once she speaks, you’re hers, unable to resist her mind control. I liked how much this frustrated her – how difficult it is to avoid giving instructions indirectly and unintentionally – and understood her antipathy to other Extraordinaries that emerged from her half-acknowledged self-loathing. I enjoyed watching her toy with Eli (yes, okay, I just didn’t like Eli at all).
While I grew fond of Victor in spite of myself (to a point), the people I truly grew attached to were the Clarke sisters. Their sibling relationship is as damaged as Eli/Victor’s friendship, but unlike the men they are hanging out with they have an abiding love for one another that balances their conflict. I was far more interested in them and their interactions than I was in seeing whether Victor could come out on top.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say I found the protagonists the least interesting people on the page, which feels a bit odd – to me, they felt limited by the super-villain concept (i.e. self interest and limited room for growth), with the exception of the brilliant decision to have Victor deface books to calm himself down. It’s a tremendous tic that delivers brilliant cover art – whilst also being the perfect signal of villainy to a dedicated bookworm.
Nonetheless, this is fast, fun read I recommend, if not one I’ll necessarily reread. That perhaps, is the cost of a book about villains: I don’t necessarily like them enough to want to spend time revisiting them (although I have read the sequel, Vengeful since).