Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vicious, by Victoria Schwab

This week I'm reviewing a superhero novel, which is something I've done before, more than once as a matter of fact, and which I'll definitely be doing in the future thanks to some of my kindle purchases. And this is despite my overall reluctance to get involved in superhero comics. I never really read comics when I was a kid so I never got exposed to superheroes like most of the other people in my cohort. And unfortunately every time I try exploring the world of superhero comics I just seem to get confused by the sheer number of crossovers and spin offs and what have yous. So reading novels about superheroes is usually an easier method for me to enjoy the idea of superheroes.

I'll begin by being very honest and saying that I didn't care for Vicious, and it simply came down to the two main characters who I did not like at all through the book. And I'm sure there's people who found these characters fascinating, as the fairly positive reviews of the book suggest, but I did not like them at all. And of course, if you don't like characters in a story it makes it that much harder to enjoy the book overall. And I can see some interesting ideas used in the book, but it just gets buried under how much I hate the characters.

To give a brief overview of the plot, the story takes place in a universe where ExtraOrdinary individuals are alleged to exist. Everyone's heard rumors that they exist, but they're generally accepted to be a legend like bigfoot or the men in black. Relegated to internet discussion boards and late night tv shows. However, two brilliant college students, Victor Vale and Eli Cardale, figure out that if ExtraOrdinaries exist it's the result of a near death experience. And like the stupid and poorly supervised young people they are, they decide to try killing themselves in attempts to give themselves superpowers. Their attempts succeed, although the cost both physical and psychological is incredibly great. And Victor and Eli, two men who weren't entirely there to begin with, are pushed straight over the edge.

All right, so we've got two young men, college roommates, who give themselves superpowers by engaging in suicidal behavior. Not terribly bright, but believable considering some of the people I knew from my own days at university. The problem is that both Victor and Eli weren't very good people and it seems like getting superpowers just amplifies the defects of their personalities. Another character literally says there are no good men in this fight, and that makes it really hard to care about the result when you're trying to choose between two fairly bad options.

Let's begin with Victor, who's more or less our protagonist and competing with or fighting Eli through the book. Victor is an incredibly manipulative personality and uses his skills and intelligence to get what he wants. He sees people as objects to be used rather than as...well...people. He's really only interested in people so far as their useful to him. He doesn't really have friends and the allies he has are only around because they're useful to him and they benefit from sticking around with him. He's interested in controlling people and uses a variety of techniques to do that, and is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. I may not be a mental health professional, but that sounds a lot like a psychopath to me. And of course the worst part, which is almost minor compared to his psychosis, is his being a Nice Guy TM. It's so small as to be almost irrelevant, but I specifically remember him having a female friend in college who he rescues from bad dates and spends considerable time fantasizing about how he'd treat her infinitely better than the jerks she's dating, which is textbook Nice Guy TM stuff. And this is our, for lack of anyone else, protagonist. Now let's look at Eli.

Eli is in some ways cut from the same cloth as Victor. We don't get as much of his background as most of the story's told from Victor's perspective, but we do get a look into Eli's motivations and it wouldn't surprise me if Eli had a lot of the same problems as Victor. Despite being an ExtraOrdinary himself, Eli comes to the conclusion that EO's are a sin against both god and nature and it is therefore his sacred duty to hunt them down and kill them, one by one. And while there are EOs who are fairly dangerous and use their abilities to rob banks or hurt people, the majority of EOs are people who don't mean anyone else any harm and are just trying to adapt to their changed lives. But Eli believes all of them are a potential threat and need to be eliminated, except for himself, of course. And considering exactly zero people in the book seem comfortable with Eli's conclusions, I don't think any of the readers should be either.

Really it's kind of a shame that the main characters are such horrible people because there is at least one really interesting idea that Schwab puts forward. Because every person who becomes an EO gains an ability based somewhat on their dying wish. So their power becomes a reflection of their personality. Such as the little girl who fell through the ice, wishing she had a second chance, and is given the ability to raise the dead. Or the wounded veteran hit by a landmine who wishes he could escape from the world and the pain, and gains the ability to walk in a shadow world. Exploring how powers are a reflection of a person's psychology and their dying wish could be a whole book and a fascinating look at human nature. Heck, there's three different tropes that you could play around with and subvert to your heart's content with a work like that. Unfortunately we're stuck following around two downright awful people I really rather would not have read about in the first place.

Overall despite some interesting ideas, this book was not enjoyable for me because I absolutely loathed the two main characters. I mean, maybe they're interesting to other people. Maybe people enjoy reading about psychopaths, but quite frankly I don't. There are plenty of other books about superheroes that in my opinion are worth reading before this one.

- Kalpar

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