June 14, 2014

Vicious: A Panoramic Review (NA/adult)

"A masterful, twisted tale of ambition, jealousy, betrayal, and superpowers, set in a near-future world.

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?

In Vicious, V. E. Schwab brings to life a gritty comic-book-style world in vivid prose: a world where gaining superpowers doesn’t automatically lead to heroism, and a time when allegiances are called into question.
" (from Goodreads)

Note: This review includes some mild spoilers, as there was just too much I wanted to talk about. Major spoilers about the ending, however, are whited out.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

My reaction: 

This is the sort of book suited to readers who don't mind completely dislikeable, loathesome, irredeemable characters. Because that is what Vicious gives you. This book has the most vile, sickening characters that I've read about in a long time.

As is obvious from the above description, there are two main characters here, Victor and Eli, and really it's a six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other situation as far as I'm concerned. Victor specializes in magically torturing people and Eli specializes in killing them the old-fashioned way. If I were forced to pick, I suppose I would choose Victor, simply because he seems to be more sane and stable than Eli. I think that if, heaven forbid, I somehow got in his way, I might be able to reason with Victor if I had something to offer him (like a useful superpower), in order to keep him from killing or torturing me. Whereas if I was an ExtraOrdinary and I ran into Eli I would be just plain out of luck, convinced as he is that he is on a God-given mission to eradicate all ExtraOrdinarys (save himself, of course, because he's "special".) 

Joining their ruthless ranks is Serena, Eli's sort-of girlfriend, who specializes in compelling everyone around her to do what she wants. She sometimes sickened me more than the others because she was so slick in manipulating people. We're told she is unable to "turn it off" and likes it when people resist her; perhaps that was supposed to make us sympathize with her but it didn't really work. Personally I thought she quite liked getting her way and twisting Eli around her little finger. Add to that her betrayal of her younger sister Sydney and let's face it, she was not about to win me over.

The only characters I actually liked were Sydney, Mitch, and the dog Dol. Sydney was a sweet, relatively innocent young girl who, despite the many obstacles she'd faced, had not turned all brutal the way Victor, Eli and Serena had. She was gutsy and had a quiet inner strength – sort of an "old soul." It was kind of sad and pathetic the way she saw Victor as her "safe place," given that the reader is well aware of his less-than-friendly attitude towards anyone who gets in the way of his plans. Mitch really seemed to care about Sydney and acted protective of her. And the dog, well, his loyalty to and bond with Sydney was admittedly adorable.

Best aspect: the complex, thought-provoking nature of Victor's and Eli's relationship and views of each other, both in college when this whole mess began as well as ten years later. While they may see themselves as vastly different (and they make every attempt to repeatedly tell themselves that) they are really two sides of the same coin. 

For Eli, there is a good dose of religious fanaticism motivating his "mission", whereas Victor is all about the cold hard facts. Eli's more impulsive and passionate, Victor more clinical, clever and exacting. In college, Eli was the charismatic one, naturally claiming the spotlight, easily charming the girl, whereas Victor lurked in his shadow, always a step behind. Victor has a glint of humanity left, evidenced by his befriending of Sydney and Mitch, while Eli appears to care for no one.

Yet their similarities are far more striking than their differences. Each determined to prove himself — Victor to Eli, who he seems to hero-worship; Eli to the world, and perhaps God. Each willing to take risks, to be utterly ruthless, to get a step closer to their ultimate goal. Each with a cruel sadistic streak that only widens when they become ExtraOrdinary. Each fascinated with pushing the boundaries of science and ethics. It is the height of irony that they both consider themselves to be on the side of "right" and the other on the side of "wrong" when from the reader's perspective it is easy to put both firmly in the category of "villain." (In fact, to underscore this point — the story primarily alternates between Victor's and Eli's perspectives, and I had a lot of trouble remembering which character I was reading about at any given time. Their mindsets just seemed so similar to me.)

If I could change something... I would tighten up the middle section plot-wise. The story dragged in the middle; things were getting repetitive ("ho hum, who's going to get tortured or killed next?") and I started to get bored. Mainly I just loathed both characters so much that I wanted to get to the part where they died (a not improbable prediction given that each of them wants to take out the other). 

I would also introduce a couple more characters who were not as despicable as the rest. It was disheartening to read over 300 pages about sadistic people with no hope for redemption. A few characters with some humanity left in their hearts would have brought a better balance to this book. 

As well, I would have liked more insight into Serena's motives. We don't get a very strong read on her character or much information on her backstory, particularly regarding her relationship with her sister.

If you haven't read it: and you like reading books about horrible people doing horrible things, well then...Vicious is your book.

If you have read it: did you find it as darkly harrowing and disturbing as I did?

Just one more thing I wanted to mention: I found the end of the book disappointingly anti-climactic, perhaps because it was not quite the ending I was hoping for. Spoilers, highlight to read: well, I was kind of hoping that Victor, Eli and Serena would all perish in a pyre of flames, as I said to my sister on Skype chat when I was partway through reading the book. Sadly, that did not come to pass. Serena did, in a manner of speaking, make it to the pyre, but Eli just ended up getting arrested (seriously, how long until he breaks out?) and Victor "died" but was conveniently resurrected by Sydney a couple days later. I would have appreciated more conversation between Victor and Eli at the end, hashing out what had gone wrong between them all those years ago at college, rather than simple physical battle.

Final verdict: This book is the antithesis of warm fuzzies. If you are looking for a book that delves into the inhuman lengths that super-humans will go to in satisfying their own ends, look no further. Vicious is aptly titled. 
Rating: 3.5 shooting stars. I struggled with what rating to give this book, simply because in all honesty I cannot say I liked it, but at the same time I cannot really say it is badly written. I will say that I think some of the violence was gratuitous, and overall I was left feeling sort of gross and tainted when I finished the book. I feel like perhaps Vicious tries too hard to be "edgy" without delving as deeply as it could into the real philosophical, ethical and psychological issues underlying Victor's and Eli's choices. 

Note: This book is only appropriate for mature readers (NA or adult), as it contains graphic violent content. 

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