“Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.”
Every once in a while, there comes along a book that you know, deep in your heart, everyone and their mother would enjoy. Sure, opinions vary. There are people out there who have never read Harry Potter. People who don’t enjoy reading at all. Still, there are some books that are so vividly ingrained in your mind that you just know on an instinctive level that everyone, whether they like reading or not, could take something away from a story. V.E. Schwab’s Vicious (which just last year got a long-awaited and begged-for sequel called Vengeful) is one of these stories.
First things first: what is Vicious about?
Vicious is about two brilliant college students, Eli and Victor, who – in part due to their arrogance and part to their ambition – decide to experiment with near-death experiences after finding accounts of people who claim to have earned supernatural powers through being close to dying. What starts out as part of a thesis ends with Victor ending in prison for killing someone, Eli hunting down and eliminating what he deems ‘unnaturals’ as part of a God-complex, and one epic battle between the good and the evil.
As promised by the title, this book packs a punch. There is space for moments of innocence, for the occasional light-hearted jab, sure – but at its essence, Vicious explores the dynamics of ethics, what makes us human, and the line between good and evil that is far too easily blurred.
The thing about Vicious is that it has a timeless feeling to it – not just in terms of how old you need to be to read it but in what time period it will be read. This is one of the rare books that you just know will age well – the universal themes, the obsession with what constitutes good and evil, the characters that you wish weren’t so similar to you and yet are, play a big role in why this is a book that will transcend decades and readers. Schwab manages to make universal themes and quiet wonderings seem extraordinary and inevitable, creating a webbed tale that will not let you go even once you’ve discovered how it ends.
No one delves into the psyche of anti-heroes quite like Schwab does. How she manages to make you feel sad for a character that has killed people for sport because he sees them as unnatural when he himself is unnatural is something I will never understand. Yet, I can’t deny that I feel a pang for Eli every time he enters the pages of the novel even though I know he is the bad guy. And then, the moment happens where you think to yourself, “…or is he?”. And that’s also one of Schwab’s talents.
No one makes you question your own perception of the world quite like Schwab does in this novel. Yes, Victor isn’t innocent, either. Really, none of the characters in this novel are. Then again, who’s to say what innocent really means? Everyone has done things they’re not proud of, things they would change…but what if you had the chance to have more power? To be something more? Who’s to say what choice you would make? Because who wouldn’t be drawn in by the musings of power?
“I want to believe that there’s more. That we could be more. Hell, we could be heroes.”
Fiction is at its best when it makes us question our own values, our own beliefs. Schwab here excellently crafts two characters with very similar characteristics that ultimately lead both of them to confront an immortal question: what makes heroes heroes? How do villains become evil? And perhaps the most dangerous of questions – when trying to stop a villain by all means necessary…aren’t you turning into a villain yourself in the process?
“There are no good men in this game,” Schwab writes in this masterpiece of a novel.
And she is right. But then again… What constitutes good? Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? I guess you’ll have to read the book and decide that for yourself.