I had mostly the same reactions to V.E. Schwab’s Vengeful (2018) as I did to its predecessor Vicious: the various elements are all a bit too familiar and the two main adversaries are a little flat, but Schwab does a mostly good job of overcoming those issues thanks to a stimulatingly non-linear structure and some marvelous side-characters. Warning: there’ll be some unavoidable spoilers for book one ahead.
As with Vicious, Schwab eschews the typical linear narrative, with Vengeful ping-ponging amongst multiple POVs and time periods. As we follow a single POV, the timeline moves back and forth from an early point (the earliest being 25 years ago) and the current time, with each flashback in the POV jumping closer and closer to the present until the two timelines overlap. For the most part, the movement between both POVs and time periods is smooth, though I did find myself flipping back a few pages to double-check the time several times, which is more than I had to do with Vicious. The POV, meanwhile, was always clear, with no confusion ever over who I was following. I’m always a fan of non-linear storytelling, generally finding it more interesting, and that holds true here. Part of it is the built-in mystery of how someone gets from point A to point B and part of it is the way suspense or curiosity can be heightened by judicious use of the cut-away.
In terms of the temporal relationship with the events of Vicious (last spoiler warning. No, really. Not kidding), five years after Eli is arrested and Victor is killed, Sydney resurrects Victor and they, along with Mitch and Dominic form one group of major players. The driving force of the plot centers on the issue that Sydney’s resurrections of Extra-Ordinaries (EO) always “breaks” them somehow, and in this case Victor “dies” on a semi-regular basis, each time staying dead just a little longer. Thus begins a ticking-clock plot strand wherein Victor goes on a quest to find an EO who can heal him before his deaths last longer than four minutes, which is when brain damage typically sets in. The urgency that comes from this set-up is more intellectual than emotional, as it’s hard to root much for Victor as: A) he’s pretty de-humanized (a facet of most EOs), and B) he tends to kill the EOs that can’t help him.
Meanwhile, another plot strand centers on Eli, who, since Vicious, has been kept in a high-security EO prison under the direction of Agent Stell from book one. Stell has been using Eli to ferret out EOs and imprison them (continuing Eli’s mission from Vicious, though he believes in execution rather than prison), and when Victor’s victims flash a red flag, Eli begins a second-hand pursuit of his old friend/adversary from his prison cell, all while keeping the true identity of this mysterious EO assassin from Stell.
Two other plot lines arise from new characters, both EOs. One, Marcella, is a mob wife whose death at her husband’s hands transforms her into an EO whose power is corruption — she can rot anything she touches. Her first goal is vengeance on her husband, but her ambition and vision are far grander than simple revenge. The other new EO is a shape-shifting assassin-for-hire named June. Both women eventually become entangled with the on-going conflict amongst Eli, Victor, and Stell.
As with book one in the projected VILLAINS trilogy, I found the two prime EOs — Victor and Eli — less interesting than the other characters. We do get a more fleshed-out view as the flashbacks take us into their early history. But I can’t say the backstory makes them any more interesting, and Eli’s, in particular, seems more than a little trite, involving a strict, sadistic religious upbringing. Along with Eli’s father, a sadistic “science-trumps-humanity” doctor also feels a bit cliché.
Marcella, somewhat similarly, tiptoes the edge of stock “married-to-the-mob” character with her brashness, her sexuality, the high heels and gold “look-at-me” dress, etc. But her dialogue is so sprightly and she’s so unabashedly brazen that I could live with the somewhat familiar character type and just revel in the Day-Glo brightness of her character’s scenes.
Vengeful’s two stand-out characters for me are Sydney and June. Sydney was also a favorite of mine in Vicious, and her character deepens a bit more here thanks to her sense of guilt over Victor’s seemingly inevitable death and her fervent quest to improve her powers in order to save him and also to bring back her sister Serena, killed at the end of the first book. We also get more of her increasingly painful recognition that her super-slow aging process means those she cares about — Victor, Mitch, perhaps her new friend June — are doomed to become momentary relationships as they age and die while she lives on, barely growing older with time’s passage.
June is an intriguing character thanks to her wrestling with a sense of identity (a problem that comes side-by-side with her power), her growing attachment (mostly from afar at first) to the vulnerable Sydney, and the way she finds herself caught between relationships — Sydney, Victor, Marcella, her employers.
The plot itself is engaging enough, though filled with familiar elements. I’ve already noted the stock nature of several of the characters. We’ve also seen the organization hunting muta— um, EOs, a prison built to hold super-powered people, the Hannibal Lechter-like “use a devilish crook to catch a devilish crook” scheme, a rich snobby father trying to stop a poor kid from marrying his daughter, “good guys” acting like monsters while they try to catch the bad guys (i.e., the “monsters”), etc. I’ve always said though that I care less about an author’s use of familiar elements and more about their execution in using them, and Schwab certainly does well looking at things that way. As mentioned, the story is engaging. Plus, it moves along smoothly, ratchets up tension periodically, has a nice sense of urgency, and has the reader a bit unsure about just whom to root for (outside of Sydney), just which mass murderer to get behind: Eli? Victor? June? Marcella? You can say none of course, but still, you’ll find yourself smiling more than once at Marcella’s lines/actions, and warm just a bit to Victor when he stays up late to make sure Sydney gets home one night. It’s all just complicated enough to keep the reader stimulated and engaged throughout, and while various aspects are resolved, there’s clearly room for more and most readers, I assume, will be eager to see what happens.