Weekly Reads: Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Hello fellow humans, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!

This week, I read one book like a regular dang person, which is pretty much the pace I want to set for the rest of the year. (I’m up to 75/95, so that’s totally reasonable.) Thankfully, it was also a good book, so I didn’t feel the need to immediately rush to something else to get it out of my head.

I picked up this week’s read Vicious because I’ve already read A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows this year (from a trilogy by the same author). If you’re into elemental magic, alternate universes, and vaguely maybe-Gregorian-era London(s), then I’d suggest them. They’re two of my favourites from this year so far, and given how much I’ve read, that’s saying something.

Which is how I came around to this book, and while the attention to character that I appreciated in the Shades of Magic series remains, Vicious is quite a bit different. It’s also a fantasy—after a fashion (more sci-fi, probably). It’s essentially a comic book novel in the grittier, anti-hero spirit.

Plot: The plot of this book is essentially Victor vs. Eli. I can summarize it for you, but so does the back of the book: they became ExtraOrdinary (EOs) and enemies ten years before the plot really begins, although we spend a lot of time back there. Plot-wise, this isn’t new. It’s a revenge narrative with reasonably predictable origins. This story shines more in terms of its characters, their motivations, their desires, and their beliefs. And the pace doesn’t drag because…

Style: Okay, so mechanically, this is written in a third-person limited perspective in the past tense. It shifts from mind to mind depending on which character is in focus in a particular chapter. The somewhat unique aspect of the style is that it cuts between events that happened ten years ago (that brought Victor and Eli to this point) and through the week or so that comprises the main events of the book, as well as some cuts back for glimpses at some formative moments in the lives of the main cast of characters (also Sydney, Mitch, and Serena). The author only uses the moments that are most important to the situation at hand, so the pace never feels bogged down with exposition or overly tragic backstory. And the chapters are all brief and contain either movement in the plot or important insight into a character, which keeps the pacing on point even if the entire book serves to frame two enemies slowly progressing towards a confrontation.

Setting: Just a regular modern town and a prep school inhabited by (at least some) snobby jerks, so this isn’t really out of the way, either.

Characters: It’s some kind of saying that the best villains are the kind who absolutely believe that they’re in the right. Despite being such a comic-y book, with extraordinarily-powered people and an archnemesis-type conflict, this is more so about morally grey characters who do what they think is right or what they feel like doing. Each character (Victor, Eli, Serena, Sydney, and Mitch) reveals at an early enough point what it is they’re trying to do, but the mystery of the book is why, and it’s the slow drilling down into who they are, what they’ve experienced, and how they interact with each other that provides interest. The structure of the book allows for characters to take actions or be in situations that don’t have explanations until we reel back in time, Breaking Bad-style. Nothing is ever completely (or overly) explained, and no character is excused for their actions, and it works for this novel.

I don’t know that this book is ExtraOrdinary itself, even with the above-average character writing. The world of these characters is drawn in some small details (the school campus, the hotel) but not as a rich, full world, and the plot is mostly characters thinking about each other and planning, so it falls a little flat in the face of Shades of Magic—but it was an enjoyable read, and vicious as advertised. It’s a little late for gritty rewrites of what it means to be a superhero, even when this came out a few years ago, so it’s not a unique deconstruction, just an entry into an already-existing canon that might have been more interesting as an actual graphic novel series.

Basically, if you’re into comic-type stories on the grittier side, revenge narratives, cool superpowers, and character-driven writing, it is very likely you’ll dig this book. If those things are not up your alley, easy skip.

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