Book of the Month: ‘Villains’ by V.E. Schwab

Book review by Femke Boom

This time there will be two books of the month, because I am dealing with a delightful duology: ‘Vicious’ and ‘Vengeful’ by V.E. Schwab. I have to admit that ‘Vengeful’ would suit Raffia slightly more, but this is mainly because this one can be read as feminist, however, ‘Vengeful’ is the sequel to ‘Vicious’. ‘Vicious’ is an enticing book nonetheless, and it deals mostly with (toxic) masculinity.

Both books play with the question as to what morality really is, and they show that the concept of good and evil is not as black and white as we tend to believe. The duology is rightfully named ‘Villains’, as the main characters are wicked in their own right.

Vicious (Villains #1)

“Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.”

schwab_viciousThe story starts with Victor and Eli, who are medical students at Lockland University. They are interested in the concept of “ExtraOrdinaries” (EOs), or ‘superheroes’, and end up experimenting in the hope that they will be able to create an EO. An EO is not consciously created; it is a result of a near death experience, and the most prominent emotion the dying person is experiencing. The latter determines the power of an EO, which can vary from healing abilities to destructive ones.

One of the experiments of Eli and Victor ends in disaster, causing Victor to be locked up in jail for ten years. Once Victor is released, he sets out to find Eli and take revenge. Both are EOs, and each has a powerful EO on their respective sides; Eli teamed up with a young woman who can bend anyone to her will, while Victor joins forces with a girl who has a power beyond anyone’s imagination. Eli is busy eradicating EOs from this world, until Victor makes his hunt on Eli obvious. Vicious is not only a dark story about revenge, but also touches upon the question as to what morality and the concept of good and evil truly is. It deals with a grey area, as neither Victor nor Eli can be seen as the conventional hero. This is pointed out by Victor in the book, who eventually labels himself the villain later on, as he is the rival of the supposed hero.

“But these words people threw around – humans, monsters, heroes, villains – to Victor  it was all just a matter of semantics. Someone could call themselves a hero and still walk around killing dozens. Someone else could be labelled a villain for trying to stop them.”

Schwab mentioned that Vicious is about toxic masculinity, ambition and obsession, which becomes apparent in the way Eli and Victor have a fixation on each other. There is a curiosity for what the other is doing, a want to outdo each other, and a need to see what is really beneath the other’s surface. Some fans read this as homoerotic, but I feel as if Schwab was rather toying with a Moby Dick-like obsession.

Altogether Vicious is an exciting read, making some readers nearly as obsessed as Victor and Eli. The writing style is sophisticated and yet addicting. It is almost as if Schwab effortlessly strung beautiful line upon beautiful line together. Perhaps she is an EO as well…

Vengeful (Villains #2)

“I don’t want to survive. I want to thrive.”

schwab_vengefulVicious shows powerful male characters in control, whereas Vengeful has empowered women. Vengeful is a surprisingly feminist read. It has a few new characters, the most prominent being Marcella Riggins. Marcella is an EO with an incredible destructive force (she literally turns anything to smithereens). She realises more and more throughout the book that women are suppressed in society, and that men still look down upon them even though she is basically a personification of ruination. This leads to her decision to take control in the city Merit through the use of her superpowers. She establishes a small team of EO, similar to how Eli and Victor each teamed up with an EO in Vicious. Marcella is done sticking to the shadows, and lets waves of destruction roll through Merit. The attention this causes makes her a target of the organisation that captures EOs. A new hunt starts, but the question is whether there will be a winning party at all.

Marcella identifies some issues women face in society. There is the pressure of society women feel to conform to particular beauty standards, as well as the objectification of women. Marcella ran into the issue at a party, where the men were unwilling to listen to her ideas even though she had graduated from university – her husband even made fun of her achievements, seriously downplaying them. This reluctance to take women seriously is the most prominent in the story: e.g. Marcella has turned into a known serial killer, but the majority of the characters in Vengeful still only see her pretty exterior.

“How many men would she have to turn to dust before one took her seriously?”

Victor and Eli are also present in Vengeful, albeit in a smaller role. They are no longer as prone to their ambitions as they used to be, and each has become limited in a way. “How?” you may wonder, for this is rather vague. Well, then you ought to read Vicious and Vengeful.

Vengeful is a delightful read too, and a perfect addition to Vicious. Schwab has managed to create a whole of Vicious and Vengeful, while each books’ themes nearly seem the opposite; the only overlapping one being ethics.

Villains suits our current society, not only in its themes but in its use of ‘superheroes’ to boot. Feminism and the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ are important nowadays, evident through movements such as #metoo and debates with regard to forms of feminism and masculinity. The ethics boil down to what makes a hero or villain, showing that it partially depends on the side of the story (or the perception of the protagonist), such as Eli being the hero while he is a serial killer in Vicious. Additionally, a group (the EOs) is segregated due to being different (and being perceived as ‘evil’); the EOs consist not only of dangerous people, but of innocent ones as well. The duology feels modern, with enough fantasy to make it extraordinary.

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