Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Immortal until proven otherwise

Full title: Vicious
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Fiction, speculative
Attributes: 368p, hard cover
Publisher: Tor (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

V. E. Schwab’s Vicious falls within the category of fantasy. It features characters with powers that exceed human capabilities; it talks of life and death as exchangeable elements in a present that is abnormally elastic; it makes appearance and disappearance seem a child’s game. All these are, of course, recognizable feature of the genre of superhero fiction. But the book breaks with the tradition of its genre in a number of ways. To start with, it doesn’t feature outlandish settings, where gnarled landscapes create morbid moods; nor is there any hyper-urbanized environment, any dystopian variation, any mind-twisting architecture. Merit and Lockwood (the two major settings of Vicious) are neither Transylvania, nor Gotham City. They are very quiet, almost invisible towns, where the background characters are normal – too normal, well-behaved to the point of obliteration.

The author, the book
Source: Writer Quirk

But the most important element of the novel is characterization. Through it, the line of demarcation between good and evil is repeatedly blurred. The main characters (former college mates Eli and Victor) live in an interesting limbo, where their moral standing changes in major ways. In the beginning, the reader finds them engaged in a project that teases the limits of normality, but in which they are involved like two good friends: they try to figure out a theory of what they call ExtraOrdinaries (EO’s): people who have experienced near death and who ended up changed in significant, superhuman ways. Things get complicated along the way and Eli and Victor acquire their own EO abilities. This is the point where they become enemies. They are given the roles of protagonist and antagonist; roles which, however, are soon unsettled. The protagonist turns out to have a lot of dark patches on his soul – as many as the antagonist, if not more. The antagonist, on the other hand, is given the privilege of internalization, which helps him become a more positive person (at least one with motives that are not impossible to understand and even accept).
This makes it hard to identify good and evil. The latter, in fact, appears to be the dominant force in the novel. As one sentence sums it up,
“There are no good men in this game.”

What’s more, with the central positions vacated or renegotiated, there are moments in the novel when the supporting characters have a chance at advancing a little, behaving like heroes a little, playing at the game of protagonists a little. Their rise to significance adds another spin to the novel, which ends with these presumably minor personages having the last word.
Speaking of which, it seems as though the book in its entirety revolves around a central maxim, one equally promising and nihilistic:
“We are all immortal until proven otherwise.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it?