I’ll quote the cover copy, so you’ll see why I was interested in this.
"A masterful tale of ambition, jealousy, desire, and superpowers.
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?"
The blurbs talked a lot about moral depth, complexity, and ambiguity. Between the blurbs and the plot, I thought I’d get The Secret History
with superpowers, starring Professor X and Magneto.
The first fourth or so of Vicious
is exactly that. The rest, not so much. I had very mixed feelings about the book as a whole, and not just because the actual book matches the plot but not the implications of the blurb. The first fourth is a stunning work of storytelling. I was absolutely glued to it. The compulsive readability wanes as the book goes on, but maintains reasonably well throughout its length. Throughout, the structure is cool, the prose is good, and many of the ideas are interesting.
Here’s what’s not so good: the characters. The two main guys seem interesting when they’re at school together – morally dark, sure, but Schwab does a great job there of suggesting complexity, hidden depth, potential for great good or great evil, etc. Then they become superheroes, and turn into one-note sociopaths.
Eli, who suddenly becomes a religious maniac serial killer, is more like a half-note. His POV sections are really boring. He’s on a delusional mission from God. He kills people because he’s on a delusional mission from God. That’s literally it. When he thinks of Victor, it’s just as someone he needs to kill because he’s on a delusional mission from God.
Victor either also becomes a sociopath, or was always one; it’s hard to tell. His POV is more interesting because he does think about things other than hurting or using people, but basically, he hates Eli (no complexity there) and wants to kill him, and will torture, kill, and use people without hesitation or qualms to bring Eli down.
I expected a fraught, love-hate relationship between them. Nope! They just want to kill each other. I expected moral ambiguity. Nope! They’re both sociopaths. Pitting one sociopathic murderer against another is not moral ambiguity, nor does it bring up interesting moral questions. “If a bad guy kills a worse bad guy, does that make him a good guy?” is not an interesting question. (Answer: No.)
There are three other POV characters who get much more limited page time. One is also a sociopathic murderer. Another is a collection of potentially interesting traits that don’t cohere into a real-feeling character, but at least is not a sociopath. The last is an actual, believable, three-dimensional, mostly coherent character who is not a sociopath. The book would have been more interesting if it had been entirely about her.
There may or may not be something about the process of becoming a superhero that turns people into sociopaths, or turns certain people into sociopaths. This is discussed but never really explored or resolved. Of the four superheroes who get significant page time, three are sociopaths but it’s unclear if they were before they got powers.
I recommend this if you’re OK with sociopathic POV characters and want to read a cat-and-mouse game between two sociopathic villains. On that level, it’s pretty good. If you’re looking for more human characters, I can’t recommend it. Which is too bad, because if the whole book was more in the vein of the beginning, when it seems like the characters might have actual depth and complexity, it would be stunning. Vicious