V.E. Schwab is one of those authors you just have to read. Her books regularly appear on Best Of and Highly Anticipated lists, and rightfully so. She is a literary force to be reckoned with, a writer who packs more punch into a single chapter than most do in a whole series. With each new book, Schwab’s already finely honed skills get sharper and fiercer, and Vengeful is no exception.
Five years have passed since the terrible events of Vicious. Five long, hard, painful years. Sydney Clarke brought Victor Vale back to life after Eli Ever was captured and imprisoned, but because her gift is also a curse, she brought him back wrong. Victor keeps dying. Again and again, each spell lasting longer than the last. In order to stop his ongoing deaths, Victor is forced down a path he once rejected. He can either be principled and dead or alive and a hypocrite. For Victor, the choice is obvious.
Meanwhile, the consequences of Eli’s murderous beliefs in Vicious have come back to him tenfold. The boy who cannot die discovers the agonizing downside to immortality. When he’s forcibly recruited to an organization dedicated to hunting ExtraOrdinary beings, or EOs, Eli thinks he’s found his chance to escape and find Victor. He is patient, though. After all, he has all the time in the world.
The dance between Eli and Victor is straight out of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s Hannibal, minus the gay subtext … and if both men were Hannibal. In the first book, Eli sought to change the world while all Victor could think about was destroying his nemesis. By the second, their roles have switched. Victor has more selfish concerns while Eli’s perspective has narrowed until Victor is all he can see. The men love and hate each other, admire and disdain, obsess and repulse in equal measure.
And then there’s Marcella Riggins, a new EO with a destructive ability. Eli and Victor are dragged into her orbit by sheer force of will, and she proves to be a thorn in both their sides. Marcella wants power and will unmake the world to get it. Out of all the EOs introduced in Vengeful—including a secretive shapeshifter and a depressed human shield, among numerous others—Marcella is hands down the best. Women like her are rare gems in fiction. It’s not often we get a story about a powerful woman where she isn’t reliant on or secondary to a man or where she doesn’t bother with scheming her way into a male-dominated power structure. Marcella looked at the boys’ club ruling her city and instead of asking for entry or proving her worth, she said “fuck you” and tore the whole damn tower down. And she did it all while wearing steel-heeled stilettos.
Saying Vengeful is a book about vengeance sounds ridiculous in its obviousness, but it’s true. Each character has their own ethical definition of vengeance, but it’s always there. If the main reason for doing something good is to exact revenge, does that make the good thing suddenly bad? Are Eli’s EO executions ethically sound because Eli thinks of the the greater good, or is Victor the good guy here because he wants to stay alive to protect the people he cares about? Who is the hero and who is the villain when both do wrong things in the name of right?
Now, since such a big deal was made of it, I do have to pause for a moment to talk about Victor’s asexuality becoming canon. Despite common misconceptions, asexuality has little to do with having or enjoying sex; at its most basic, it’s a lack of sexual attraction. Although many aces don’t have sex, many also do. Vengeful describes Victor as “disinterested in sex,” but there’s a big difference between no interest in sex and a lack of sexual attraction. A person’s interests can change over time and can be influenced by others. Saying Victor is disinterested in sex implies that one day he might be interested in it. This conflates asexuality with celibacy and abstinence, a dangerous comparison that both discounts a person’s identity and supports the theory that asexuality is something that can be corrected or fixed. My lack of attraction is not something I can pick up and put down at will.
Ultimately, I’m rather disappointed that the long-awaited canonical ace rep comes down to “disinterested.” Disinterest in sex does not an ace person make, but when combined with the subtle ways Victor interacts with others across both books I’m inclined to assume he is. This wasn’t the ace rep I was hoping for, but it’s better than nothing.
Although Victor’s pseudo coming out didn’t really work for me, everything else in this soul-crushingly great novel did. This is an un-put-downable book. I read pretty fast, but with Schwab I find myself taking my time and savoring the sentence structure as much as the characters and plots. She makes the craft of it look easy, like she just sat down and cranked out Vengeful over the weekend. I could make a Faustian bargain with the devil and still never come close to how good V.E. Schwab is at writing.
Emotionally eviscerating and coldly calculating, Vengeful weaves a gusty, gory tale with an ending you’ll never see coming. This book killed me a dozen times before I even got to the final confrontation. If the twisty plot and the intriguingly ambiguous morality of the characters doesn’t hook you, then the devastatingly clever writing and the viscerally realistic action scenes will. As much as I want this duology to become a trilogy, if this is the last we see of Victor, Eli, Sydney, and Mitch, holy Hera, what a way to go.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.