There have always been stories about people who could do incredible things under pressure: lift cars off children, people surviving accidents that should have killed them, etc. No one thinks much of it when Eli Cardale decides to make these extraordinary people the subject of his senior thesis. His friend, Victor Vale, just thinks it’s a way for Eli to test his boundaries with their biology professor. This is just the backstory behind V.E. Schwab’s explosive tale of heroes and villains, Vicious.
Vicious opens ten years after Eli began his research on ExtraOrdinaries, EOs. Victor has just been released from prison and is now hunting Eli down. Through flashbacks, we learn that Eli traced the origin of EOs to near death experiences and an incredible urge to live. Both boys try it out. Eli revives from his death in an ice-filled bathtub with the ability to instantly heal any wound. Victor’s death doesn’t go so well. Eli’s girlfriend, Angie, helps him electrocute himself. When Victor revives, he finds he had the ability to control pain—but he accidentally kills Angie. Eli believes that his ability is god given. Victor is more practical. Unfortunately, Eli’s abilities, religions convictions, and Angie’s death turn him into a crusading angel. He spends the next ten years, while Victor is in prison, hunting down EOs.
In Vicious’ present, Eli and Victor are on a collision course. Victor has spent ten years plotting how to kill Eli and he sets a midnight deadline for the showdown. Schwab still skips back in time to show us the histories of the other characters in the novel: a girl who can bring the dead back to life, a soldier who can walk through shadows, a young woman who can command others to do her bidding. There are no rules in this world. Other than the EO origin, Schwab stays far away from the usual superhero tropes. In fact, many of the EOs have a hard time not becoming sociopaths as, when they come back from their deaths, they find that there’s something missing inside them.
Vicious is a brilliant take on a gritty world of superheroes who are just trying to figure out how to deal with their unwanted abilities. This is the kind of book you blaze through just to see what’s going to happen next. The last third of the novel is full of twists and turns that keep the tension humming along. What I loved best about Vicious was how Schwab kept her characters wondering about right and wrong even as they seek revenge and justice. No one is an absolute hero or villain here; it’s all a matter of perspective.