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Book Review & Giveaway: Vicious by V.E. Schwab

ViciousTitle: Vicious

Author: V.E. Schwab

Genre: Speculative Fiction, Superheroes

Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: September 2013
Hardcover: 368 Pages

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.

Stand alone or series: Standalone novel

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print

Why did I read this book: Both Ana and I are fans of Victoria Schwab’s – Ana loved The Near Witch, and I enjoyed The Archived. So, when we learned that the author had a new book out – her first adult novel, under pseudonym V.E. Schwab – focusing on superhero/villain tropes, we were ecstatic. (And since I had the copy of the book, I got to review it. Sorry, Ana!)


Victor and Eli. Roommates, brilliant young minds, and best friends. Always vying for the top spot in their science courses at University, Victor and Eli are evenly matched in intellect – though Victor is antisocial and wields his intellect as a weapon, whereas Eli is all warm charm and gregarious handsomeness. Despite these differences, there is something that connects the two friends and draws them together – for Victor is attracted to the sharp, unseen thing that lies just beneath Eli’s easygoing mask, and recognizes it in himself. When it is time for the pair to select their senior thesis to culminate their scientific undergraduate careers, they embark on a dangerous experiment together to test the idea that EOs – ExtraOrdinary people – exist, and that they can be created with the right set of conditions.

Their experiment works, but at a terrible cost – people are dead, Victor and Eli’s friendship is forever broken.

It has been ten years since Eli and Victor have seen each other; ten years since Victor has been incarcerated in a maximum security prison for some unknown terrible crimes. But Victor is out now, and he’s hunting down Eli with revenge on his mind.

Let me start this review proper by saying: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Vicious. From the cover art, from the general feel of the synopsis (especially the main character’s name, Victor), I was expecting this to be set in an alternate world with Georgian/Victorian-ish undertones. I expected mad science à la Victor Frankenstein (i.e. crackling electricity and stolen cadavers), excessive amounts of hubris, and ultimately cruel, sad death. I expected arch-enemies to be made of former friends, of certain powers and abilities to be shown – but I was thinking more along the lines of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in execution, rather than, say, X-Men.

In truth, Vicious does tell the story of arch-nemeses Victor Vale and Eli Ever, but the book decidedly is not set in the Victorian era, or in University Ingolstadt, or at a remote Swiss château. Rather, Vicious takes place in an analog of our own modern-day (albeit in a slightly different world). The brilliant young scientists Victor and Eli do experiment with their ambitious theories, mad science-style, but this all happens with modern technology – computers, phones, well-equipped undergraduate science labs. Theirs is also a world where EOs, or ExtraOrdinary people, are widely suspected to exist among the general populace, although no one really takes them seriously.1 Once I recovered from my initial confusion, I very much loved this modern setting for Vicious – I liked the undergraduate college past the two friends-cum-enemies shared, and the modernism of the technology and world makes Vicious stand out and feel more distinct and relevant as a unique take on not just superheroes and superpowers, but of “heroes” and “villains” in general.2

Suffice it to say, Vicious is a bit of an odd book to position and describe – ultimately, I’m putting it in two categories. It’s an unexpected book, and it’s an awesome book. It questions our existing understanding of superpowers and the notion of heroism, and it does so in a way that feels smart, non-preachy, and utterly memorable. I love that neither Victor nor Eli are categorized with simple “good” or “evil” labels. As Mitch says, there are no good guys in this story and Victor and Eli aren’t exactly role models; even from the outset of the book the two are borderline sociopaths, or at least enormously narcissistic because they are both brilliant and smarter than anyone else at their school. Their lack of empathy is only exacerbated after they induce their own god-like powers. This, I think, is the brilliance of Vicious – because while we hear that great power comes with great responsibility, our own superheroes almost always do the Right Thing. Superman does not get drunk on power, and he uses his abilities for the greater good. Victor and Eli? Not so much. In Vicious superpowers come with super-costs – hubris in the extreme, with Eli actually playing God and Victor casually disinterested in the collateral damage on his single-minded mission of revenge.

Similarly, in that world-building and rule-setting vein, Vicious posits that ExtraOrdinary humans are created, not born. Following near-death experiences (NDEs) and an influx of fear, adrenaline, and a desperate desire to live, EOs are people that have come back from the brink of death, but have changed, and have some new power based on those last fleeting thoughts and desperate wishes before death. I won’t spoil anyone’s party tricks for you, but they are pretty good – Victor, Eli, Sydney, Serena and a latecomer named Dominic all have their own distinct types of superpowers, and it’s a very cool way to look at the genesis of such abilities. That said, the flip side of this is what else happens after someone dies and comes back to life. I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the idea that anyone that comes back from an NDE is missing a part of their soul; that all EOs in this world, technically, are “spiritually” damaged and lacking sympathy. Nonetheless, I give props to Schwab for originality here, even if I’m not sure I buy into it or particularly like this interpretation of NDEs or the uncomfortable spiritualistic/religious side to the book.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the characters themselves, outside of the framework of the themes and worldbuilding aspects of the novel! Victor Vale is the true protagonist of Vicious and something of an anti-hero. As I’ve said, he begins the book as a brilliant if self-important young man, who has a love-hate relationship with his roommate Eli. While Victor is all dangerous sharp edges and cool, calm anger, Eli is warm and charming, and every bit as intelligent as his roommate. Despite their outward differences, though, Victor senses the same razor-edge in Eli, underneath his friendly façade – their relationship, even from the start of the book, is one fraught with competition and need, the desire to show the other one up but also earn his approval. We don’t really get to spend as much time in Eli’s head as we do Victor’s, but the constructs Victor builds to define his relationship with Eli is fascinating, uncomfortable, and desperate. The book flashes back and forth through time, from real-time to ten years prior, detailing the events leading up to Victor’s incarceration and the fallout between the best friends – so we get these little glimpses of Victor’s early subconscious desperation for Eli’s attention, to his post-prison obsession to not only get Eli’s attention but to pay him back for… well, some very bad thing that tore their friendship asunder.

This is the heart of the book; the crux of the tension that drives Victor to do the things he does. And, incidentally, it is the only thing I found disappointing with regard to this novel. This conflict is the keystone that holds up the arch of the entire book, the lynchpin that determines the salience of the rest of the book. And… when we finally learn what has passed between the two, it’s a little underwhelming. As it stands, there is a single event that tears the two apart, and it happens overnight – hardly satisfying payout for all that buildup. I wanted MORE; more drama, more blood, more dramatic time spent showing the two young men growing apart and becoming such bitter enemies that it consumes Victor’s life and the ten years he has spent in prison. Alas.

That criticism said, the rest of the journey in Vicious is so brilliantly wrought that my disappointment was tempered by the awesomeness of the rest of the book. I haven’t even said much of the secondary characters – Sydney and her sister Serena in particular are standout characters – but I think I’ve blabbed on for long enough. What it all comes down to is this: I loved Vicious and I think you will, too. Give it a shot, please?

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:


Merit Cemetery

Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave. His trench billowed faintly, brushing the tops of tombstones as he made his way through Merit Cemetery, humming as he went. The sound carried like wind through the dark. It made Sydney shiver in her too big coat and her rainbow leggings and her winter boots as she trudged along behind him. The two looked like ghosts as they wove through the graveyard, both blond and fair enough to pass for siblings, or perhaps father and daughter. They were neither, but the resemblance certainly came in handy since Victor couldn’t very well tell people he’d picked up the girl on the side of a rain-soaked road a few days before. He’d just broken out of jail. She’d just been shot. A crossing of fates, or so it seemed. In fact, Sydney was the only reason Victor was beginning to believe in fate at all.

He stopped humming, rested his shoe lightly on a tombstone, and scanned the dark. Not with his eyes so much as with his skin, or rather with the thing that crept beneath it, tangled in his pulse. He might have stopped humming, but the sensation never did, keeping on with a faint electrical buzz that only he could hear and feel and read. A buzz that told him when someone was near.

Sydney watched him frown slightly.

“Are we alone?” she asked.

Victor blinked, and the frown was gone, replaced by the even calm he always wore. His shoe slid from the gravestone. “Just us and the dead.”

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 8 – Excellent



We have one copy of Vicious up for grabs! The contest is open to addresses in the US only and will run until Saturday, October 5 at 11:59pm (EST). To enter, use the form below. Good luck!

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Reading Next: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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  1. On an interesting note, this is also a world with our own comic book heroes and villains. Victor and Eli discuss the genesis of EOs by comparing and contrasting Superman (born with his abilities) versus Spiderman (gains his abilities after a radioactive event).
  2. I should also say, this setting/era and focus confusion could be entirely be something I made up in my head – perhaps to everyone else the synopsis + cover feel like a modern superhero story with no Frankenstein-esque undertones. In which case I apologize for the lengthy diversion here!


  • Sophia D
    September 28, 2013 at 11:37 am

    The premise sounds amazing and fresh… Would love to get an opportunity to read it.

  • Sophia D
    September 28, 2013 at 11:38 am

    And fav arch nemeses would definitely be Prof. X and Magneto

  • Greg
    September 28, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Been reading the preview section of the arc and love this… Will have to get a real copy….

  • Josephine Cheung
    September 28, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Mermaid Man & Barnacle Boy and Man Ray.

  • Justine
    September 28, 2013 at 11:56 am

    My favorites include:
    The Matrix: Agent Smith vs. Neo
    Austin Powers: Dr. Evil vs. Austin Powers

  • Eliza
    September 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Prof. x and Magneto!

  • Sarann
    September 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    For some reason the first nemesis pair I could think of was Zurg and Buzz Lightyear. Weird, right?

  • Genevieve
    September 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    My favorite is Batman vs. The Joker, but in the 90’s cartoon not so much the films

  • Al
    September 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I really loved this book.

  • Carl
    September 28, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Well Superman and Lex Luthor are the pair that I encountered first so they are the ones that I always think of first. There are lots of great pairs though. How about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty?

  • Sarah N.
    September 28, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Titania and She-Hulk!

  • Maria
    September 28, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Gotta go classic. Spiderman and Doc Ock

  • Damaris
    September 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Magneto and Professor X because they started out as friends and I think they still care for each other although they’re have different views regarding humanity.

  • Yuko86
    September 28, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Surely Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty!

  • Kelsey
    September 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Between this and Steelheart, I’m excited at the offerings for fresh takes on superheroes and supervillains! And I’d have to say Batman and Joker are my favorite arch nemeses.

  • Abigail
    September 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    FYI, the tweet message in the rafflecopter is for a different book 🙂 Favorite nemeses goes to Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner

  • Lexi
    September 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    This is hard. I do like Sherlock/Moriarty though.

  • LB
    September 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    I like authors taking risks.

  • Cee
    September 28, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Definitely Professor X and Magneto.

  • serenity
    September 28, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Batman and Joker if it’s Heath Ledger’s Joker.

  • Kelley
    September 28, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    How about the Doctor and the Daleks?

  • scribe kira
    September 28, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    mermaid man and barnalce boy vs. man ray ftw

  • Allison
    September 28, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Spiderman and The Green Goblin

  • Jana
    September 28, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    I’ve heard so many good things about this book, and I’d love to have a chance to read it! My favorite pair-up is Beowulf and Grendel–particularly in John Gardner’s novel Grendel. It really makes you wonder how heroic Beowulf truly is!

  • Sunil
    September 28, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Let’s go with Daredevil and Kingpin. Even though his archnemesis is probably Bullseye, I love the interplay between Daredevil and Kingpin: each one respects the other and sort of NEEDS the other, despite the fact that they want to destroy each other.

  • Lexa Cain
    September 28, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    You must certainly like the author to give her such a detailed, insightful, and thorough review. I have to admit your review influenced me far more than the blurb. Thanks! 🙂

  • Jordan R.
    September 28, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    I love villains with an interesting backstory. I just finished watching Avatar for the first time, and I really love Zuko and Azula!

  • Anna
    September 28, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Oooh, Sherlock/Moriarty is a classic.

  • Nushrika
    September 28, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Harry Potter and You-Know-Who (Voldemort) 😉

  • Hannah H
    September 28, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Holmes and Moriarty!

  • Kate & Zena
    September 28, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Batman and the Joker (it’s classic), Batman and Two-Face, Luke Skywalker and Palpatine, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty…..IT’S SO HARD TO CHOOSE!!!!

  • Jamie Moesser
    September 28, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Most recently, Cole and Nikki in Everneath, by Brodi Ashton. Modern retelling of ancient Persephone

  • Rebecca I.
    September 28, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Dying to read this book. 🙂

    I know it’s HP and Voldemort…but on a schoolboy level, Harry and Draco is my favorite!

  • Marisa
    September 28, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Jem and the Holograms vs. the Misfits. Been watching a lot of old 80’s cartoons (love being an 80’s baby)

  • Grafton
    September 28, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Superman and Lex Luthor

  • Malvika Jaswal
    September 29, 2013 at 5:18 am

    Sherlock and Moriarty!!!

  • Malvika Jaswal
    September 29, 2013 at 5:23 am

    I am determined to win a free copy… one day!!!!

  • Katie S.
    September 29, 2013 at 6:50 am

    Do Harry Potter and Dolores Umbridge count? Because I feel Umbridge was worse than Voldemort.

  • Jackie Morse Kessler
    September 29, 2013 at 9:57 am

    I **loved** this book. One of my all-time favorites. (Please don’t enter me; I blurbed the book and already have a purchased copy.)

  • Stacey
    September 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    This sounds great! It’s on the list.

  • Isabelle L.
    September 29, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    While a superhero story can always bee fun, I’ve often been frustrated by the oversimplification of good and evil in superhero books. This book looks particularly interesting because of it doesn’t try to force people into the traditional hero-villain roles. I’d love to read it!

  • Isabelle L.
    September 29, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    I love Magneto and Charles Xavier–once good friends whose views on the world have forced them to become “enemies.” I have a feeling “Vicious” has a different, and perhaps darker, take on a similar relationship.

  • Ellie
    September 29, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    I’m going to go really geeky for a moment and say Robin and Slade from Teen Titans because I love that show!

  • Deserae McG
    September 29, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Am so glad you enjoyed this novel because I am a personal fan of Victoria Schwab’s but didn’t know how I’d feel about her adult novel. Conversely am extremely excited for her middle grade novel soon to come, but am UBER glad to hear VICIOUS is as awesome as I had fingers crossed it would be. Underwhelming cause of vengeance aside, this review put me at ease about the science-fictional aspects of the book that made me “hmm…” Am so ready to dig in! Thanks for the review and the opportunity to win the novel.

    Wishing you well,

  • Deserae McG
    September 29, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    And also, favorite nemeses would have to be Ice King and Finn. Not exactly superheroes but my friends have got me into “Adventure Time” lately and am appreciating the sympathetic villain more and more. I think a great antagonist is one that is definitely the protagonist of their side of the story. So Ice King gives me goosebumps. He may be a cartoon, but I feel for the guy and find myself almost rooting for him in some of the episodes.

  • KevinS
    September 29, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    My favorite arch nemesis would have to be Marvel Comics Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin). He knew Spider-man’s secret identity (always a big problem for a hero) and killed Spidey’s first love, Gwen Stacy. Even when not in costume he can cause a ton of trouble for marvel heroes, specifically Spider-man. He took over S.H.I.E.L.D., set up his own team of “heroes” comprised of “reformed” villains legally. He is definitely a villain that I love to hate.

    Second place is goes to the Joker. The Joker is set up to be the complete opposite to batman in nearly every way (comical/insane vs serious/rational, etc,etc). Plus he tortured and killed Jason Todd (the second Robin) and paralyzed Barbara Gordon (Batgirl). Whenever the Joker shows up, the story line gets an immediate increase in tension. Plus, who can resist Mark Hamill’s voice acting in the animated series and video games.

    By the way, love the giveaway.

  • mary anne
    September 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Since my son is on a Joss Whedon kick and I have watched a LOT of his stuff lately, Angel vs Wolfram and Hart. Buffy vs Angel was the best, but it only lasted a season, where Angel was dealing with Wolfram and Hart throughout the entire series.

    Also, Zorro and the Alcalde.

  • Kirsten!
    September 30, 2013 at 4:43 am

    I don’t really read many archnemeses books, but Harry/Voldemort is perfect.

  • Becky C.
    September 30, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Prof. Charles Xavier and Magneto because they have such a complex relationship and it isn’t cut and dry.

  • Susan C.
    September 30, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I’m thinking the Doctor and the Daleks. They have a seriously long hatred going.

  • superbwg
    September 30, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Aw man, it is so hard to choose. I love arch nemesis’s because so often that is what a person uses to define themselves, always interesting to see what happens when a person finally defeats, or loses there nemesis. I think for my favorite I am going to have to go with Sheldon Cooper and Will Wheaton 🙂

  • LeAnn
    September 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    I’d have to say Batman and the Joker, the Heath Ledger one and the old school Jack Nicholson one. I think I just really like the Joker.

  • Lauren
    September 30, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    This may be a little unorthodox, considering it’s not a superhero duo, but I’m going to have to say Jim McAllister and Tracy Flick from the movie Election. Totally awesome.

  • Anita Yancey
    September 30, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    I would have to say Superman and Lex Luther.

  • Rose L.
    September 30, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    I’m in a Breaking Bad mood right now, so I’d have to go with Walter White and Gus Fring.

  • Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books
    September 30, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    I have not read any of Schwab’s stories yet, but there is something compelling about this one for me. And it sounds as thought she really did make this story completely her own. I know you mentioned the religious/spiritual aspects as a sort of negative thing for you as a reader, but spirituality in fantasies always intrigues me. And that’s kind of good to know that there are consequences in this world for making yourself have superpowers, beyond the near-death experience itself. I definitely plan on reading this book soon – and thanks for the giveaway!
    Ooh and I think I have to go with Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort.

  • Cherie Durbin
    September 30, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    I’d have to go with Superman and Lex Luther here.

  • M. Alan Thomas II
    October 1, 2013 at 2:54 am

    I would suggest that the “damaged soul” narrative is one told to us by unreliable narrators. Indeed, V&E’s sociopathy—apparent to a lesser degree before their transformations—could easily induce that feeling on its own. Whether or not it’s true is not a fully answered question; Eli certainly believes it, and Victor buys into it because it allows him to justify what he’s become to himself, but they have issues. And even if the sense is real and endemic among EOs, that merely suggests that the experience of becoming one has a common psychological effect, not that the characters’ interpretation of it is correct.

  • Emma
    October 1, 2013 at 8:39 am

    My favorite archnemeses are Professor X and Magneto. I love the “we used to be best friends, but now we are mortal enemies!” thing.

  • Alyssa L.
    October 1, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Sounds awesome! Will have to pick this one up. As for hero/arch-nemesis relationships, the one that played such a strong role for an extended period of time in my literary life would have to be Harry Potter and Voldey. I’m trying to come up with others off the top of my head, but not having much luck!

  • Liviania
    October 1, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Great review! As for archenemies, I think my favorites are Professor X and Magneto – mostly because they know how to work together when they have to.

  • cat falls
    October 2, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Harry Potter and Voldemort. Definitely

  • Jenna
    October 2, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    I loved Buffy and Spike, especially because it showed how archnemesis’ are often closer to the hero’s then lovers and can comfortable become them without losing their power.

  • Shannon H
    October 3, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Jack and Nina from the show 24? Though she does eventually die and all her awesome scheming went away after that…

  • Maggie
    October 3, 2013 at 10:28 am

    This book sounds fascinating. I love friendship stories, even if the friendship in them is broken or messed up, and a story that actually explores how friendships shift and change would be awesome. Throw in superpowers, and I’m hooked.
    As far as favorite archnemeses go… I’d have to go with Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. I feel weird about that, since Moriarty was basically Doyle’s way to get out of the Holmes character, but there’s something so amazing about the line “He is the Napoleon of crime” and this exchange (paraphrased because I am at work):
    Moriarty: “If you bring destruction upon me, I will do as much for you.”
    Holmes: “You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty. Let me pay you one in return when I tell you that if I could be assured of the former eventuality, I would cheerfully accept the latter.”

  • Elisquared
    October 4, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    I would go with Spiderman vs Venom. This is a great archnemesis because at one point Spiderman was Venom. There are a lot of layers to this storyline. Also Spiderman’s my favorite so…

  • Shae/Shelver @ Shae Has Left The Room
    October 4, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    At the moment, my favorite is BBC Sherlock’s Moriarty. He’s ridiculously entertaining but also frightening to the extreme.

  • Dana
    October 4, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Todd Hewitt and Mayor Prentiss from the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness! ^_^

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