Vengeful by V.E. Schwab Review

The second book in the Villains series doubles down on the X-Men parallels, but remains its own rich storytelling experience.

This Vengeful review contains minor spoilers for Vengeful and major spoilers for Vicious. Come read and discuss Vicious with us as part of the Den of Geek Book Club.

Men don’t have a monopoly on villainy, whatever pop culture may tell us. They don’t have a monopoly on revenge, on anger, on ambition, on the effects of power as a corrupting force. This truth is at the heart of Vengeful—the highly-anticipated follow-up to V.E. Schwab’s 2013 novel Vicious—out this week and not a moment too soon.

Vengeful picks up five years after the events of Vicious, and those years have not been kind to this world’s central characters. Victor is suffering from the increasingly-serious side effects of having been brought back from the proper dead. Eli has been locked inside of a cell at ExtraOrdinary Observation and Neutralization (EON), an organization set up to catch and contain EOs. Sydney is struggling with her part in Victor’s condition, as well as the isolation that comes from being an 18-year-old stuck in a 13-year-old girl’s body.

If Vicious was reminiscent of Frankenstein(unintentionally, on Schwab’s part), the story of two men who create monsters in themselves and each other, and then hunt each other to the ends of the Earth to vanquish that villainy, then Vengeful is X-Men: a fight for the future of EOs as a species, one defined by two differing opinions from within the EO community of what that future should look like. If Victor and Eli agree on one thing, it is that EOs belong in the shadows, they must never draw attention to themselves. For new character Marcella Riggins, EOs are the superior species—they deserve to shine.

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If Victor is the Charles, desperate to protect the innocent EOs (represented here by Sydney), then Marcella is the Erik, desperate to prove the superiority of the EOs and herself at any cost (save for the cost of her own power, of course). We even have a Mystique-like character in the form of June, an EO who wears other people the way you or I wear clothes. When she is injured wearing someone else’s body, it is the person who suffers, not June. 

Of course, as should be true with any original work of storytelling, the comparison fits poorly in places. This isn’t X-Men, even if it shares some of the same narrative interests; it is its own rich, complex immorality tale. This story doesn’t give us the relief of a Charles Xavier. As Schwab wrote in Vicious, “There are no good men in this game.” In Vengeful, there aren’t any good woman, either. (Save, perhaps, for Sydney.)

Vengeful does a wonderful job of expanding what was already a textured world in Vicious. Through the continued exploration of familiar characters like Victor, Eli, Stell, Dom, Mitch, and Sydney and the introduction of new POV characters like Marcella, June, and Jonathan, we get new perspectives, new systems of morality, and different sets of priorities to measure against one another.

Schwab has crafted a story about villainy, but, within that theme, she explores the resilience of attachment, of family, of love, of belonging—even for those who actively rail and struggle against it. Vengeful‘s characters fall into two categories: those who can love and those who cannot (or at least choose not to).

Most fall into the first category, but, even for characters like Eli and Marcella, who fall firmly into the second, Schwab is not interested in dismissing their lack of empathy, their disinterest in accumulating social wealth, as less complex or less relatable. Vengeful looks at both ways of being through the same discerning lens, treating them as different degrees of humanity rather than different species altogether, and setting this story apart from more black-and-white tales of villainy and anti-heroism.

Men don’t have a monoploly on villainy, but power is an integral ingredient to any effective villain and men do disproportionately hold power in our society. This is a reality Villains series doesn’t discount when bringing women more fully into the antagonist fold in Vengeful.

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“How many men would she have to turn to dust before one took her seriously?” Marcella Morgan asks in Vengeful, highlighting the fascinating, often cathartic complexities of this terrifying character. Marcella has no empathy. She craves power above all else and doesn’t particularly care who has to die for her to get it. That being said, she takes a special delight in killing the men who have continually underestimated and belittled her, and there is something deeply cathartic about that.

Marcella’s EO powers exist because her husband beats her, then leaves her to die in their burning home, and it’s not hard to root for his comeuppance, even while understanding that Marcella’s motivations extend beyond simple vengeance.  

“People looked at [Marcella] and assumed a whole lot. That a pretty face meant an empty head, that a girl like her was only after an easy life, that she would be satisfied with luxury, instead of power—as if you couldn’t have both.”

Schwab excels at walking this tricky narrative tightrope between empathy and sympathy or, worse yet, glorification. She doesn’t encourage the reader to revel in the destruction and pain her anti-heroes and antagonists cause, but she doesn’t dismiss their actions as random acts of violence or cruelty divorced from relatable human emotion and motivation, either. She doesn’t dismiss the addictive qualities of power. She simply says: power is rarely sustainable, and often not enough.

We learn much more about Eli’s tragic backstory in Vengeful. Schwab has spoken before about how much the Harry Potter book series meant to her growing up, and we see parallels between Eli’s own backstory and Lord Voldemort’s backstory in the Harry Potter series. Both were orphans, born to cruel fathers and robbed of stable family lives at a young age. (Eli’s childhood, notably, included a deep connection to religion and, more enduringly, faith.) Both learned the art of charisma and likeability to compensate for their lack of belonging, learning how to wear affability as a disguise that tricked almost everyone. 

Of course, Eli’s mask of geniality never fooled Victor, which is what made their relationship so addicting to Eli when they first met at college. If to love someone is to truly see them, then Eli and Victor love each other—but what a twisted love it is. Our popular culture often confuses obsession with love, romantic codependency with committed monogamy, so it’s refreshing to see Schwab continue to treat the dynamic between Eli and Victor as unhealthy and undesirable without sacrificing any of its narrative importance.

“[Victor] turned toward Eli like a face toward a mirror. Like to like. It frightened and thrilled Eli, to be seen, and to see himself reflected.”

Their relationship is not a romantic one—Schwab describes Victor’s asexuality in Vengeful, an identity that was only hinted at inVicious—but it has the kind of all-consuming quality of fascination that is traditionally only reserved for romantic love stories in our culture. Eli sees Victor as a ghost when he believes him to be dead. When he has gone mad from torture and confinement, Victor is the hallucinatory companion he chooses for himself. It’s not love, but it is something related: The desire to see and be seen. The addictive wonder of being chosen free of any social obligation. Again, there’s something inherently human in the yearning for that privilege.

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We don’t get more of Victor’s backstory in Vengeful, aside from his first meetings with Eli from Eli’s perspective, which means we must judge him mostly in the context of the book’s presents. Victor, who hates the word “miracle,” who doesn’t believe in luck, who is slowly learning to take responsibility for his actions, even while methodically, stoically taking more lives and causing more pain.

We do get more outside perspectives of Victor, one of the many ways in which Schwab’s third-person narrative voice excels. From ex-soldier Dom, back again in Vengeful to do Victor’s bidding in exchange for a life free of pain: “In Dom’s head, Victor went around acting like the world was one big game of chess. Tapping people and saying, ‘You’re a pawn, you’re a knight, you’re a rook.'” Like Eli, Victor has a strict code of logic and morality, one that he sticks rigidly close to.

Unlike Eli, however, Victor has a greater self-awareness of the subjectivity of that code. “There is no harm in seeing a creator behind the creation,” Eli muses to Victor during one of their conversations at college, always ready to give responsibility for his actions to a higher power. Meanwhile, Victor spends the book lamenting the fact that he is the maker of his own fate, his own misery, his own consequence. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between? There is space for the reader in the exploration of this question, room to decide where your own personal belief system falls on the fate-to-free-will spectrum.

June is the book’s greatest mystery, seemingly intentionally so: a professional killer who wants a family to replace the one she refuses to go back to. “Blood is always family, but family doesn’t always have to be blood,” June tells Sydney, and we get the impression that June’s story would have turned out very differently if she’d properly met Victor, Mitch, and Sydney earlier in the story. But also maybe not? June may not be lonely, or so she claims, but she chooses to be alone until she can find someone worthy.

June is a question Schwab refuses to fully answer in Vengeful, and presumably we will get her backstory in the final book in the Villains trilogy. For now, much of June’s character is defined by her relationship with Sydney, who she has decided is someone, amidst this group of struggling EOs, she longs to call family. (Frankly, it’s a good choice, which tells us something else about June.)

June’s power grants her many advantages, but, unlike some of the other EOs in this book, June realizes that it is a hollow, broken kind of relationship that is based on power or force. June doesn’t simply want to choose Sydney; she wants Sydney to choose her back. Of course, no one ever really listens to Sydney, a side effect of still being seen as a child. “I don’t want you to save me,” Sydney tells June at one point. “I want to save myself.” Sydney’s subtle arc in Vengeful is one of the book’s most emotionally-rewarding.

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Schwab is a writer who values both form and content, both storytelling and style. Her prose is efficient, yet poetic—some of the best in the business, up there with Neil Gaiman. There is a confidence in structure, one that has previously been backed up by execution in Schwab’s work, that allows readers to follow Schwab where she leads. This book is told in third-person, but its tapestry of perspective is so much more complex than that. Schwab weaves perspective like a French braid, pulling in new points-of-view, but never losing track of the story.

All books race towards an ending, a climax, a point, but Vengeful does it with the weight of inevitability. It does it with a magnetism that suggests fate, but is actually the mark of a highly skilled writer. In her relatively short career, Schwab has proven herself time and again as a storyteller we can trust to have a worthwhile plan and to know how to effectively execute it. We trust Schwab like we trust any good writer: intuitively, with a kind of faith. With each page, the story grows faster, denser, and more inescapable, like all good books should. Vengeful, like Vicious before it, is one of those books, and Schwab is one of those writers. 

Vengeful is now available to purchase via Macmillan, Amazon, or your local independent bookstore. Come discuss the Villains series with us over at the Den of Geek Book Club.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.