I am ashamed to say that this has been on my TBR pile for nearly five years, (guess which Book Bingo category I’m checking off this week, people!) and it feels like V E Schwab has exploded into popularity since then, (although I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that I am shockingly out of touch with, well, everything, so this is probably just me). When I first picked this book up I’d never heard of Schwab and couldn’t find anything else by her in the library or my nearest big book store. Now thanks to her recently completed Shades of Magic trilogy I see her books everywhere – which can only be a good thing, because she is – I have only just discovered – a mind-blowingly awesome author. Can’t believe I waited so long … *shakes head in disappointment at self*
So, Vicious. Oh my. Does it have two lonely, brilliant, beautiful boys in it? Yes, it does. Do they become best friends, recognising in each other a little of themselves? Yes, they do. Always interesting, but nothing out of the ordinary so far. Do they discover a way to gain super powers? Yes, they do … intriguing. Do they use their powers for good? No. No, they do not. They really, really don’t. Not even close. All aboard for the realm of awesome sauce! I read this book so uncharacteristically quickly I was completely unprepared for it to end; it dragged me in and held me down until the last word, and that doesn’t happen as much as I’d like it to.
I am not a classic comic book hero fan. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, they’re all a bit too big-white-male for me, (I am a big X-men fan though, which I feel is one of my most delightful character traits), but the villains that appear in those comics seem to have cooler origin stories than the heroes. Batman’s alright I suppose, but the Joker, the Riddler, Penguin, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Two Face, Bane are all just so much more … compelling; (although I only really remember the TV cartoon and the Tim Burton’s movies, so maybe I’m wrong?). Spiderman has IMO a dreadful creation story, but (again I’m only going by the movies – and the Toby Maguire ones at that, not those other lads) Dr Octopus, that sand guy, and the black sticky man (Venom?) were way more interesting, even if I can’t remember their names. My point is, the darker side of human nature is more of a draw, perhaps because we all sense we’re capable of darkness, perhaps because we want to understand it.
So here, Schwab has created not heroes but two ‘villains’ with incredible (and telling) super powers, and then pitted them against each other. Not that any of the story is as simple as that makes it sound. Victor and Eli’s relationship is fabulously complex, and the whole time I was reading about them circling and preparing to kill one another I was thinking how much like a love story it read. If there isn’t any Victor/Eli fan-fiction out there (I haven’t yet checked) I’ll be surprised. Victor and Eli are friends and equals in intellect and in the dark, broken, little hearts that they hide from everybody else. They see themselves in each other, and are both attracted and repelled by the reflection. They both spur each other on and inspire one another. But if I have to choose (and I feel that I do), I choose Victor. He’s our way in and our POV and while he does some dreadful things, both unintentional and deliberate, you can’t ever quite hate him. Victor’s saving grace is that he doesn’t lie to himself (unlike Eli) – he knows that he has this darkness inside, he’s aware that he uses people and that he doesn’t feel morality the way he should, and that self-awareness makes him ultimately likeable. That and the fact that Eli is a too-smooth, too-slick, too self-righteous sod by comparison.
Nobody in this story is a hero though. Everyone is flawed and broken and human. And all the characterisation is amazing. No one is a cardboard cut-out filling space – Sydney with her too-big clothes, her truly awesome power and her innocence (love her), Mitch and his chocolate milk (love him), Serena with the scariest super power of the lot of them (love to hate her), Dominic the not-to-be-underestimated late arrival (love him too), even Dol the dog (lovelove him) all have distinct voices and personable quirks and charm. They were all totally engaging and I was left wanting more.
I was also left pondering things that I can’t write more about without spoiling the book. All I can say is: how could Victor be a good guy with the super power that he has? Is Sydney the only truly good person in the book? And how is that so? Is a hero even possible in Schwab’s Merit when you consider the way in which super powers are gained?
Finally, I have to mention the cover art. I read the hardback edition pictured, and I spent a lot of time when not reading just drooling over the beautiful image by Victo Ngai. So I looked her up and oh my! this is one very talented lady. If you are at all interested in the visual, go see her stuff here. She’s done some amazing stuff, and there’s a cool video posted on her site too where she talks about becoming an artist. Super super super awesome!