The big thing in superhero films right now is apparently two generally heroic guys beating the crap out of each other because they’re too manly to communicate with words. This isn’t a trope that particularly appeals to me, but I am always on the lookout for a story that will successfully subvert it. So it was with a tentative heart that I picked up V.E. Schwab’s 2013 novel Vicious. And while the story does put an interesting spin on the superhero story, I still found myself somewhat disappointed.
Vicious tells two simultaneous stories, both focusing on Victor Vale and Eli Cardale. The first is the story of how they, as hubristic college students, tampered with life and death and emerged as EOs—ExtraOrdinaries, people with X-Men-esque powers. The latter, set ten years later, focuses on the bitter and vengeful rivalry the two men have developed since that time, and how that tension comes to a head.
As college students, Victor and Eli are best friends; however, they’re also rivals in the same program of study, and, although Eli doesn’t know it, Victor is also deeply jealous of Eli because he has a crush on Eli’s girlfriend Angie. When Eli chooses to study EOs for his thesis, no one expects him to find anything—their existence is only rumored, after all—but Eli’s research quickly goes from theoretical to practical when he pieces together the common thread between all the EO reports: they’re all people who’ve died and been revived. He and Victor immediately take their lives into their own hands and successfully acquire EO powers, but everything goes wrong from there. Eli, who was previously quietly religious, takes the fact that he succeeded at dying and coming back on the first try and Victor needed two tries as a sign that God has appointed Eli His special agent. Then, during Victor’s take two, Victor ends up killing Angie by accident. Then, Eli decides that his research is too important to be left in the hands of his thesis adviser and murders him. Then, Victor gets arrested and is convicted of both murders and goes to jail for ten years.
In the present day, Victor is desperate to get his revenge on Eli, but Eli has other concerns. Namely, he’s using his supposed appointment from God to justify a mission to exterminate all other EOs. The two men bring together all the resources and allies they’ve acquired over the last ten years to supplement themselves in their final battle. In the end, though, Eli’s hubris is his downfall, and Victor outmaneuvers him into getting caught in the act of one of his murders.
I think the most interesting thing about this book is that neither protagonist is a hero. We end up rooting for Victor because he’s the POV character and because it’s hard to sympathize with Eli the religious fanatic, but no matter how kind Victor is to orphans or dogs, he’s still more than willing to use his powers (which can create or remove pain) to hurt people. Meanwhile, Eli’s power, a rapid healing factor, leaves him practically invincible, but rather than using this for good, it’s mostly useful to him in that any injuries he incurs while murdering people heal immediately. Both men have abilities that could make them a hero, but they end up using their powers in typically villainous ways.
However, the rest of the story doesn’t particularly subvert superhero stories in general or this particular “men punching each other because they can’t talk it out” trope. The most egregious aspect of the former, to me, was the fridging of Angie. Victor resents Eli for getting to her first, and resents Angie for interfering in the time he can spend with Eli. Angie was an accomplished scientist-in-training herself, but ends up being used as a pawn in Eli and Victor’s relationship. When Victor’s first attempt to temporarily kill himself to get EO powers goes south, Eli takes it as a sign that God has rejected giving Victor powers and refuses to help him try again. Undeterred—even more determined, in fact—Victor asks Angie to use her experimental neural electric transmitters to do the deed. When he wakes up from, well, dying, he discovers that his new-found pain-inducing powers overflowed and killed Angie. Her entire storyline, then, is to create fodder for two different men’s pain. If the author was trying to write a different and interesting spin on the superhero story, shouldn’t Angie have lived?
This is a story that couldn’t have happened without a woman dying to make a man feel bad. Unfortunately, it’s also a story that couldn’t have happened without toxic masculinity. If, at any point before trying to become EOs, Eli and Victor had talked about their problems instead of bottling them up and letting them fester, none of the story might have happened. It would have had to happen early on, before the cascading dominoes of their mistakes and missteps boxed them in, but they really could have talked it over and fixed pretty much everything.
And I hate to be that fangirl (okay, just kidding, I really don’t) but I think these characters would have benefited from some queerness rather than just a lot of subtext. This is a story that screams out for fix-it fic. I was surprised after reading it to see that there’s not a particularly large fanfiction community for this story, because I feel like pairing them romantically rather than as rivals would have led to the story avoiding all the shit they stacked on each other later on. It’s not hard to jump from “Victor is jealous of Eli getting to date Angie” to “Victor is jealous of Angie getting to date Eli”; furthermore, part of his resentment of their relationship is that he doesn’t feel that Eli is living up to his full potential around Angie. Imagine the story where, instead of all of the above, Victor and Angie both want to date Eli, but Eli chooses Victor. They go on to become powerful and, well, vicious, evil superscientist superhusbands, and Angie, along with the same supporting female cast as the original novel, has to bring them down. Now that sounds like a superhero argument subversion I could get behind—where the two superfolk are so bad at arguing that they’re hypercompetent instead.
In the end, I liked Vicious and its worldbuilding is interesting, but if you’re looking for something different than the usual superhero fare, the story is sadly par for the course. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I have a fanfic to write.