I love airplanes. I’m unstoppable on airplanes, productivity wise, but I also love airplanes because they feel like a liminal space where book deadlines and TBR piles don’t exist. My favorite part of a trip is picking out what backlist or super super far away front list title I’m going to read in the sky, where I don’t have calendar reminders about magazine reviews or looming award committee discussions to dictate what I have to read next.
About four months before I boarded a plane to Kansas City, Missouri, I decided that my treat read for this trip—but especially the plane ride to and from—was going to be a V.E. Schwab Duology I’d had on my shelves for far too long: Vicious and Vengeful.
Despite 100% purchasing these books myself—and looking at their spines on my shelves for months—I realized as I opened the front cover during boarding at DCA, that I had no idea what they were about. I like Schwab’s writing, but I don’t usually read fantasy or sci-fi. I enjoyed her Darker Shade of Magic books, most of which I read while working the polls during the 2020 election, and love her middle grade City of Ghosts trilogy. Speaking of those, are we getting a fourth one?
Anyway, I like Schwab’s writing and I love that her fantasy worlds are recognizable enough to the human reader that she doesn’t feel the need to shroud the reader in three hundred pages of world building. Page one of a Schwab novel, you are off to the races.
With Vicious, we start in a graveyard, which I recognize now is a Schwab Special. In flashbacks, and gloriously short but sweet chapters, we meet two men: Victor and Eli. Both are too smart for their own good (in my opinion) and lack empathy in a way that makes them great main characters. When they are in college, in a world that seemingly mirrors ours with a few enhancements, they decided to try to kill themselves. Not a suicide pact, but something more: a chance to be ExtraOrdinary. Eli has a theory that EOs—aka: people with supernatural powers—are not born, they are made. After a lot of inquisitive work that makes this librarian proud, Eli thinks he has figured it out: EOs are people who got a second chance at life, who, in their dying moments, somehow had the will, or the skill, to come back. And what do the boys do with this theory? They put it to the test on themselves, to make themselves ExtraOrdinary. To kill themselves, bring each other back, and see what they will become.
I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, that it works, but the outcome is not what was expected for these roommates. Their paths as ExtraOrdinaries divulge quickly, as Victor ends up in prison. Cut to a decade later, in a graveyard. We go back and forth through time with the two, and some of their accomplices, seeing what their lives were like before they were ExtraOrdinary, and what their powers have turned them into.
This is a sort of dark-superhero story that is perfect for fans of Nolan’s Batman, and probably that weird Bat Guy movie where he’s a vampire (I forget the name, because I refused to see it) but it’s also clearly got a Frankenstein influence. I mean, come on—the guy’s name is VICTOR. A pre-med student named Victor? Very on the nose, Victoria. Is he the doctor, or the monster? That ebbs and flows on the page, as allegiances change for some, but rarely the reader. The answer isn’t as clear-cut as in Shelley’s work, but the influence is clearly there.
It’s a pretty fast read—less than 400 pages—and the short chapters make it fly by. Victor’s hardly a likable protagonist, but Schwab does serve us a few semi-side characters, including a teenage girl who develops powers after a very Amy March brush with death and a thiccc hacker man, that soften Victor’s edges. It’s got police procedural drama, action sequences that sometimes melt the bones right out from under your skin, and of course supernatural drama. No romance though, which I appreciated. Keeps the blood flowing, not pumping.
Vengeful picks up five years after the end of Vicious, which I obviously can’t tell you about for obvious reasons. However, while some character reappear in the sequel, there’s also a new EO that dominates many of the pages, Marcella Riggins, a mob wife turned super destroyer.
The same veins are still there though—a healthy amount of murder and violence, some of your favorite characters.
This is another of Schwab’s great successes that will appeal to a wide range of readers, would be easy to hand to a guy who says he doesn’t like to read but watches every Marvel movie, and could also easily be given to a teen who understands it’s a story and not an instruction manual for destruction. Sure, the gun goes off a lot on the pages, but it’s not as gorey as you might expect, because it moves so swiftly.
And a warning: the dog dies, a lot. But he’s also safe at the end, and that’s what matters, isn’t it?