26 January, 2022

LitStack Recs: The Places In-Between & Vicious

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

(Seeing that Victoria “V.E.” Schwab’s newest novel, A Conjuring of Light, just dropped this week, I thought it might be nice to revisit one of her earlier, and amazing, works in this week’s recommendation.)


What would happen if there were superheroes in the real world; or rather, if suddenly ordinary folks were unexpectedly imbued with super powers?  Would good be so separate from evil?  Or would everything come out as some sort of petty, egotistical gray? Victoria Schwab’s novel Vicious explores the not so noble side of sudden inexplicable power.
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Victor Vale is a brilliant, taciturn, cynical college student whose family wealth opens doors but provides no emotional support; his preferred mode of relaxation is to take a black Sharpie to one of his parents’ self-help books and redact it so as to totally change the meaning of the text (“Be lost.  Give up.  give In.  in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin.  be lost And then you will not care if you are ever found.”).

Victor’s sudden and initially unwanted roommate, Eli Cardale, is a brilliant, charming, all-American golden boy who, if watched closely enough, has something about him – a fervor, a keenness – that is “decidedly wrong.” For his senior thesis, Eli proposes a theory for “feasibility of the existence of ExtraOrdinary people, deriving from laws of biology, chemistry and psychology.”  (ExtraOrdinaries – EOs – are a mysterious phenomenon that may or may not be real; as of yet, they fall into the category of urban myth.  Most know of EOs through “believer sites and the occasional late-night exposé where ‘experts’ analyze grainy footage of a man lifting a car or a woman engulfed in fire without burning.”) To everyone’s surprise, his thesis is accepted.

Eli elicits Victor’s help to prove that EOs can be created, despite the danger involved in the experimental process.  When deciding to use themselves as test subjects, it becomes apparent that not only are both Victor and Eli addictively curious as to the outcome of the experiment, but also, if successful, desirous of being able to draw on some kind of superpower, regardless of how that power manifests itself.

What follows is a fast paced, gripping story of bitterness and revenge, with people being used as pawns by those who have positioned themselves above ordinary laws of man or god.

Ms. Schwab’s narrative positively vibrates on the page.  Her characters would be at home on the pages of a comic book, yet she manages to lend them a literary styling without losing the visceral edge of pen and ink. We recognize the mundane tropes she uses, but the depth she gives her characters – both in their actions and their motivations – keeps them from being anything but mundane.  And she plays into our modern cynicism to give us unsympathetic characters who yet evoke our sympathies. We find ourselves cheering deeds that in lesser hands would be devastating, and we end up caring not about “happily ever after”, but about revenge. (“Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.“)

Pretty heady stuff.

While this novel involves no spandex and only one somewhat supercilious incidence of a masked hero,  Vicious nevertheless will chill, simply because the possibility of it playing out in our world seems oh, so possible, and oh so frightening.

And oh, so entertaining.

—Sharon Browning

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