VICIOUS by V. E. Schwab or How to Sympathize with Villains

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SYNOPSIS

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates. Brilliant, ambitious and cunning, they got along more than fine until senior year. When a shared interest in adrenaline and near-death experiences helps them uncover the secrets behind EOs—ExtraOrdinary beings—Victor and Eli develop an obsession with turning themselves into EOs. 

Fast forward ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison with an insatiable desire to take revenge on Eli. With an escaped convict and hacker, a twelve-year-old girl with necromancy powers and an undead dog in tow, Victor sets himself on a hunt for his long-ago friend now foe. What could have happened ten years ago to make Victor and Eli turn against each other? And who between the two will be left alive at the end? 

Alternating between several perspectives and timelines, Vicious is a riveting tale of revenge, broken friendship, and sheer wickedness. 

 

GENRES: Adult Fantasy, Sci-Fi


Often enough, fantasy authors create two basic types of characters: the strong and virtuous protagonist and their devilish antagonists. I might be playing into the stereotypes here, but typical stories are indeed woven into this pattern—hopefully with a few creative elements incorporated in there. 

Imagine my wonder when I dived into Vicious by V.E. Schwab and was catapulted into a fantastic tale full of anti-heroes, betrayal, jealousy and lofty ambition. None of the typical tropes used in fantasy books found their way into Vicious. There’s no hero, no romance, no swords, no honor and no morals.

Let’s put the emphasis on “no morals” here. 

Our two main characters, Victor and Eli, are both terrible human beings. They are two of the most twisted and forbidding souls imaginable. And you know what’s most fascinating about Victor and Eli? As much as they’re portrayed as the most villainous of humans, it’s impossible not to sympathize with them to a certain extent.

That’s what I wish to discuss today. I think it is fascinating and no doubt thought-provoking that we, readers, are somehow able to find redeeming qualities in horrible characters. 

So let’s look into what makes Victor and Eli so evil and why they are deemed as likable, redeemable souls nonetheless. Does it have something to do about V.E. Schwab’s talent for creating complex stories and characters? Or does it rather have something to do with what qualities our society values? 

 

Before tackling the questions of interest, let’s take a moment to try and get a good picture of our two main characters, who underwent a dramatic transformation to get from friends to ruthless foes. 

As much as Victor and Eli are deemed as unlikable and oddly enigmatic—not to say twisted—from the start, never did they commit a crime or did they do something so horrific as to earn the title of villains before they became obsessed with EOs. Therefore this story is about them turning into true anti-heroes and what comes out of it. 

 

VICTOR

“Truth be told, Victor didn’t care for graveyards, either. He didn’t like dead people, mostly because he had no effect on them”

This quote sums up Victor’s character in a stupefyingly accurate way. His deepest desire is to be seen, to be noteworthy and admired, though he’s also the kind of bitter person who revels in solitude. People seem to shy away from him because there’s something so mysterious, even freakish, about him. 

The only two people Victor really tolerates are Eli and Angie, though he holds a bit of a grudge against them for forming a couple and making him feel left out. Victor considers Eli to be his best friend and he secretly admires him for his easy-going manner and always-perfect-looking self, although he also regards Eli with fierce jealousy.  

In short, Victor is a many-faceted, contradictory character. He always needs to be acknowledged and to be the best at what he’s doing, but he doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention. Victor also loves Eli almost like a brother and is proud of being friends with him, although he entertains very awful thoughts when Eli seems to surpass him in any respect. But as horrible and unworthy of a friend his thoughts may be, Victor never acts on them.

Until he does and then grows into a ruthless version of himself, capable of murder—and pretty much anything—to get what he wants, and incapable of fear, compassion or guilt.

 

ELI

“He was like one of those pictures full of small errors, the kind you could only pick out by searching the image from every angle, and even then, a few always slipped by. On the surface, Eli seemed perfectly normal, but now and then, Victor would catch a crack, a sideways glance, a moment when his roommate’s face and his words, his look and his meaning, would not line up.”

Eli’s character proved to be more difficult to understand at the beginning of the story, partly because we only know him from Victor’s point of view when they’re in college—we don’t get chapters from Eli’s point of view until halfway through the book—and partly because Eli reveals his true self only later on. Nonetheless, we’re able to gather some information through Victor’s lenses. 

Many times Eli is described as a very handsome, charismatic young man who knows how to pour on the charm to get away with anything. Uttering a witty remark punctuated with a dazzling smile works a long way for Eli. His devastating looks aside, Eli shows the same rough edges and lofty ambition as Victor but, unlike him, Eli tries to keep his charming-college-guy act together as not to reveal anything. 

Everything changes when both he and Victor develop an obsession with EOs and things go out of hand. From that point on, the real Eli slowly emerges from the shadows and the charming college guy turns into a self-righteous madman. 


“The paper called Eli a hero. The word made Victor laughed. Not just because it was absurd, but because it posed a question. If Eli really was a hero, and Victor meant to stop him, did that make him a villain?”

So now, ten years after their senior year of college, Eli wishes to kill every single EOs on behalf of his God for possessing “unnatural powers”, while Victor yearns to get his hands on Eli and murder him.

As things go downhill, our opinion on who’s the lesser evil is subject to change, and that’s why I find Vicious so fascinating. In the beginning, everything makes us believe that Victor is the most twisted of the two but as the story unfolds, Victor and Eli swap roles.  Eli’s actions and mad thinking turn him into the greater villain, and that helps us believe that Victor is the hero for wanting to get rid of Eli, although we know from the very beginning that he’s just as twisted. 

V.E. Schwab’s talent as an author has no doubt something to do with how easy it was to sympathize with Eli and then with Victor as the story took a different turn. She is a naturally gifted author who crafts incredibly complex characters and stories. Her prose is so out of this world that it’s easy to hang on every word she puts down on paper and thus go where she wants to take us without asking questions. 

But still, how are we able to find redeeming qualities in characters that are known to be villains? It takes more than eloquent prose and realistic characters to play with one’s mind. I think that V.E. Schwab was able to identify the moral and aesthetic qualities our society value and have her characters manifest those qualities to redeem themselves. 

 

WHAT ARE THOSE REDEEMABLE QUALITIES?

In the beginning, we find ourselves between two opposite characters: one (Victor) is brutally honest, cold and jealous, while the other one (Eli) is apparently good looking, charming and nice enough to get himself a girlfriend. 

As lousy and superficial as it sounds, most people—myself included—will fall for the attractive guy. We first judge people based on their looks, that’s a fact. That’s why beautiful people tend to land jobs more easily and have more strangers notice them in a room full of people. Awareness of that fact doesn’t change anything: when faced with two equally freakish people, we will first sympathize with the attractive one without thinking.

So Eli’s good looks and charisma are his redeeming qualities, especially in the beginning when we know he’s supposed to be as twisted as Victor but it doesn’t really show. Eli’s appearance is blinding and contrasts with Victor’s apparent lack of charm, which does certainly nothing to help him. 

As the story unfolds, Eli’s looks are not enough to atone for his actions. He goes from lesser villain to greater villain in a matter of chapters because at that point in the story, there’s absolutely nothing likely to alter his opinions and thus, his decisions. I will say nothing more because the book is worth reading, for the characters so much as for the plot, but know that Eli’s charm and handsome face, fortunately, don’t make up for everything he does. 

That brings me to Victor who, from the beginning, has been sharing his most honest and twisted thoughts with us. When compared to Eli’s charming self, Victor’s cold thinking and brutal honesty don’t serve him well. Although at some point, our opinion of him changes because we realize that, at least, Victor has a much more rational mind than Eli. Here we can argue about the fact that rationality doesn’t always equal virtuousness. True. Although in the case of Victor and Eli, it kind of does—if you haven’t read Vicious already, you’ll have to to find out why. 

In other words, we get to understand Victor and his motivations a lot better as the story progresses and we come to realize that he might not be as cold and twisted as he let us believe. When confronted with the enemy, the “heartless one” is not always without humanity. 

I think we’re able to sympathize with Victor and Eli to a certain extent because they represent what we, consciously or not, find endearing in people. Whether we like it or not, good looks hold some value in our society. We are more likely to sympathize with good-looking people outright, and that’s what happened with Eli. Although, in the long run, honesty and rationality are two qualities most people, myself included, find much more endearing than good looks. Possessing these qualities doesn’t make Victor a hero, but it explains why we would change our opinion of him halfway through the book. 


 “Someone could call themselves a hero and still walk around killing dozens. Someone else could be labeled a villain for trying to stop them. Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.”

 

If you’re looking for an engaging and unique story, pick up Vicious without further ado.  V.E Schwab’s delightful prose swept me away into an intricate world full of enigmatic characters. Not only was I irretrievably lost into the pages of this book, but I also found myself exploring the depths of the human mind. Thought-provoking and engrossing, Vicious is not a story easily forgotten. 

8 thoughts on “VICIOUS by V. E. Schwab or How to Sympathize with Villains

  1. I’ve been wondering whether or not I should pick up the book (because I didn’t like the Shades of Magic series as much as other people did), but this just tipped the scale. I think anti-heroes are a little overdone, but when done right, I love them like nothing else. Thank you for such an awesome discussion/review!

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Kathy! I feel the same towards the Shades of Magic series (tbh I have yet to read the second and third books, but I think A Darker Shade of Magic is definitely overhyped) but I can assure you that Vicious is worth it! I would like to hear your thoughts once you’ve read it:)

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  2. Pingback: Top 5 Wednesday – Books You Want to Read Before the End of the Year – Pages Below the Vaulted Sky

  3. This review was incredible. I actually found it because Kathy linked to your post in her recent Top Five Wednesday post and I’m so glad I did. I’m in the same boat as Kathy as well because I was not a fan of A Darker Shade of Magic (and haven’t read the rest of the books either because I am not giving them any time out of my life). But I was still planning on reading Vicious even before I read your review, although now I want to read it even more.

    Thanks so much for such a thought provoking review, I really enjoyed reading it.

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  4. This is the first book review of yours that I’ve read and I simply adore it! I love the way you analyzed and talked about the characters in Vicious and what the author intended to get across. I’ve had this book on my tbr for a while, and it looks like it’s definitely time to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

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