I’m looking at Vicious by V. E. Schwab, the author of A Darker Shade of Magic and showrunner of First Kill. Amazon tells me I purchased this title in 2019, but I don’t remember doing that. Is it a strange coincidence, or is it the soul blight found within these cursed pages? Have I tried to critique this book before, only to find myself in a half-dream state as I gaze into the chill light of my monitor, inexplicably writing a different article instead?
Let’s see what Schwab has in store for us, if we dare. You can follow along via the Amazon Look Inside feature or via the excerpt posted in the Editorial Reviews section.* I was going to say it’s at the bottom of the section, but apparently it moves. Is it an A/B test, or is it dark magic?
The first chapter is titled “Last Night, Merit Cemetery.”
Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave.
Well, I guess we know the main character is in a graveyard. Since he has a shovel, he might be planning on digging up a body. That’s not particularly unique, but it still suggests something tense and magical is happening. Since I vastly prefer this low-key hook to over hyping some momentary curiosity, I’ll give it three out of five stars.
Let’s look at the rest of the paragraph.
His trench billowed faintly, brushing the tops of tombstones as he made his way through Merit Cemetery, humming as he went. The sound carried like wind through the dark. It made Sydney shiver in her too big coat and her rainbow leggings and her winter boots as she trudged along behind him. The two looked like ghosts as they wove through the graveyard, both blond and fair enough to pass for siblings, or perhaps father and daughter. They were neither, but the resemblance certainly came in handy since Victor couldn’t very well tell people he’d picked up the girl on the side of a rain-soaked road a few days before. He’d just broken out of jail. She’d just been shot. A crossing of fates, or so it seemed. In fact, Sydney was the only reason Victor was beginning to believe in fate at all.
Yes, that is one paragraph, missing its first sentence even. And it’s the very first paragraph. Look, if you’re going to read Vicious, you gotta commit, okay? Schwab doesn’t want any half-hearted readers who will ditch at the first wall of text. If you ditch, the curse won’t work, and then how will she get blood sacrifices in her name?
An easy place to break would have been before “The two looked like ghosts.” A break could also go before “He’d just broken out of jail” if a transition like “at the time” was added.
Now riddle me this: Whose viewpoint is this giant paragraph in?
- If it’s in Victor’s viewpoint, how does he know that his humming made Sydney shiver? Does he have mind-reading powers?
- If it’s in Sydney’s viewpoint, how does she know that she’s the only reason that Victor is beginning to believe in fate? Perhaps he recently told her, “You know what, Sydney? You’re the only reason I’m beginning to believe in fate.”
- If it’s in omniscient, why isn’t there any information that neither of them knows? And to which person does their meeting seem to be “a crossing of fates”?
This is in close perspective; the casual style of the narration should develop the viewpoint character. But we have no idea which person is making these remarks, and simply calling it omniscient narration wouldn’t fix this. In omniscient, you have to properly attribute thoughts to characters and clarify what the character thinks versus what the narrator thinks.
Here’s what omniscient narration might look like.
Any onlooker who saw them might have believed they were ghosts, both blond and fair enough to pass for siblings, or perhaps father and daughter. They were neither, but the resemblance certainly came in handy for Victor, since he couldn’t very well tell people he’d picked up the girl on the side of a rain-soaked road a few days before.
At the time, he’d just broken out of jail. She’d just been shot. To the both of them, it seemed like a crossing of fates. In fact, Sydney was the only reason Victor was beginning to believe in fate at all.
I added some information about onlookers that feels more outside their heads. Then I specified that their ability to pass for relatives was handy for Victor, and that their meeting seemed like a crossing of fates to the both of them. The result feels more distant than before, but it is also clearer about which person is thinking and experiencing these things.
As the narration is written, I have to assume that Victor and Sydney are a miniature Borg collective. I name the group consciousness Vicney.
On the plus side, Schwab is doing well at establishing atmosphere. With Vicney’s ghostly appearance, the creepy humming, and the trench coat in the graveyard, Schwab can throw in the playful rainbow leggings for some nice contrast without ruining the mood. She’s also given these characters and their relationship some depth. Their backgrounds are sympathetic, and their meeting sounds interesting. Vicious already has the feeling of a “found family” story.
What’s missing is what Vicney is doing in this graveyard. Without that, Schwab will have trouble setting up significant stakes and moving the plot along. Let’s see if Schwab tells us.
He stopped humming, rested his shoe lightly on a tombstone, and scanned the dark. Not with his eyes so much as with his skin, or rather with the thing that crept beneath it, tangled in his pulse. He might have stopped humming, but the sensation never did, keeping on with a faint electrical buzz that only he could hear and feel and read. A buzz that told him when someone was near.
Though I think buzzing, humming, and vibrations are overused as a description of magic at this point, this is otherwise a great passage. It fits the creepy atmosphere, it’s visceral, and it communicates clearly that Victor has a magical power he can use to sense people nearby.
Thankfully, the whole thing is also clearly in Victor’s viewpoint. Let’s cross our fingers that the narration simply continues that way.
Sydney watched him frown slightly.
“Are we alone?” she asked.
Why, Schwab, why??? All you had to do was write “Victor frowned slightly”! Why do we also have to hear that Sydney is watching this, thereby suddenly putting us in her perspective? We’re not even getting her thoughts, so this adds no value to the narration.
Is this what happened last time? Could I not handle the fathomless abyss of Schwab’s POV whims, thereby leaving me no choice but to erase these horrors from my memory?
Victor blinked, and the frown was gone, replaced by the even calm he always wore. His shoe slid from the gravestone. “Just us and the dead.”
Oh, I see, Schwab wants Victor’s thoughts to be mysterious. It’s harder to hide what he’s thinking if she sticks to his viewpoint. But hiding something Victor knows is just a meta mystery. Strategically, this is a poor choice for two reasons.
- Readers are less likely to get attached to a character if they don’t understand their emotions and motivation. That attachment is really important; it dramatically raises their engagement level and makes it much more likely they’ll finish the book.
- If Victor is concealing why he’s frowning, that suggests Schwab is hiding a problem from readers. But problems are hooks! They shouldn’t be hidden; they should be brought into the picture as quickly as possible.
Curiosity matters to readers, but it’s significantly less powerful than tension or attachment. That makes this a downgrade unless Schwab doesn’t actually have anything interesting to share and she’s using the mystery to conceal that.
One way to get around this would be sticking to Sydney’s viewpoint as she tries to figure out what’s bothering Victor, thereby encouraging readers to get attached to her instead. But so far, Sydney hasn’t had any agency. If she’s just a passive vehicle for watching what Victor does, readers will get frustrated with her.
They made their way into the heart of the cemetery, the shovels tapping softly on Victor’s shoulder as they went. Sydney kicked a loose rock that had broken off from one of the older graves. She could see that there were letters, parts of words, etched into one side. She wanted to know what they said, but the rock had already tumbled into the weeds, and Victor was still moving briskly between the graves. She ran to catch up, nearly tripping several times over the frozen ground before she reached him.
Schwab delivers more atmospheric description. Details such as the noise the shovels make bring the scene to life, and seeing broken pieces of graveyard etched with parts of words is very evocative.
Unfortunately, from a story perspective this is useless filler. Schwab started with the characters in a graveyard only to show them walking deeper into the graveyard. Why not start in the center of the graveyard or wherever their destination is?
If Schwab wants them to spend more time getting to their destination, she should add some structure. Perhaps there’s something dangerous they have to get past before they get to where they’re going. They could also piece together clues to find what they’re looking for, but that would be meaningless unless Schwab discloses what they’re looking for and why it matters.
Let’s keep going, starting with the rest of that paragraph. No, of course that wasn’t the full paragraph.
He’d come to a stop, and was staring down at a grave. It was fresh, the earth turned over and a temporary marker driven into the soil until a stone one could be cut.
Sydney made a noise, a small groan of discomfort that had nothing to do with the biting cold. Victor glanced back and offered her the edge of a smile.
“Buck up, Syd,” he said casually. “It’ll be fun.”
So Victor is digging up a fresh grave. To steal valuables? To raise the dead? To stop the dead from rising? To add the dead’s biological and technological distinctiveness to Vicney’s own? Meanwhile, the lamp named Sydney is making noises but offering neither help nor resistance.
Since Victor is smiling, that suggests Schwab is indeed using a meta mystery because she doesn’t have any genuine sources of tension. This is a routine graveyard dig for Victor. If Sydney were the full-fledged main character, that would have helped. Imagine she gets shot, wakes up in the care of some vaguely menacing guy, and he takes her to the cemetery for a reason he doesn’t want to share. Even then, we’d need at least some social conflict between them and some degree of agency for Sydney.
Truth be told, Victor didn’t care for graveyards, either. He didn’t like dead people, mostly because he had no effect on them. Sydney, conversely, didn’t like dead people because she had such a marked effect on them. She kept her arms crossed tightly over her chest, one gloved thumb rubbing the spot on her upper arm where she’d been shot. It was becoming a tic.
This contrast in powers between Victor and Sydney is nice. It suggests they’ll make a great team – assuming Sydney does something at some point.
Then the Vicney collective consciousness strikes again! Exactly who thinks that Sydney rubbing this spot is becoming a tic? It matters whether this is Victor showing concern for Sydney’s welfare, or Sydney expressing anxiety about her own habits but still finding herself unable to stop. As it stands, I don’t know what to think about these characters.
Victor turned and sunk one of the spades into the earth. He then tossed the other one to Sydney, who unfolded her arms just in time to catch it. The shovel was almost as tall as she was. A few days shy of her thirteenth birthday, and even for twelve and eleven twelfths, Sydney Clarke was small.
Wait – Sydney’s 13 and as tall as a shovel handle?! I could guess she was fairly young before, since Victor might be mistaken for her father, but not this young. Now I gotta go redraw the entire scene as I imagined it. For instance, Sydney’s interest in looking at broken pieces of gravestone now seems like youthful play. That’s why this kind of character information should be delivered ASAP, when the character is first introduced. It’s jarring to get information this important later.
Also, Victor brought a 13-year-old to the graveyard in the middle of the night to dig up bodies with him? Victor, what do you have to say for yourself?
She had always been on the short side, but it certainly didn’t help that she had barely grown an inch since the day she’d died.
Way to bury the lead, Schwab. That’s a much better hook than anything else here. But it also raises many questions, ones that Schwab won’t answer because she’s nothing without her secrets! For instance, did it actually matter that Sydney got shot several days ago? Or was getting shot what killed her? Did she come back from the dead because of her own powers, or did Victor raise her? We haven’t heard his last name yet; maybe it’s “Frankenstein.”
I hope he isn’t responsible for bringing her back, because it’s starting to feel like this young woman is being relegated to the status of an animal companion. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen it – looking at you, Demon Slayer. She’s young and she’s a girl, making it more likely her agency will be neglected, especially since she has Victor to tell her what to do.
As for Victor, both his intentional mysteriousness and his lack of problems are signs he might be candied. It’s still very early in the story, though, so Schwab definitely has time to go in another direction.
Now she hefted the shovel, grimacing at the weight.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.
“The faster we dig, the faster we get to go home.”
Home wasn’t home so much as a hotel room stocked only with Sydney’s stolen clothes, Mitch’s chocolate milk, and Victor’s files, but that wasn’t the point. At this moment, home would have been any place that wasn’t Merit Cemetery.
That first “now” feels unnecessary and out of place. Why is it there? My first guess was that Schwab wanted to transition from expositing on Sydney to describing what she’s doing in this moment in the story, even though a transition isn’t called for. On second thought, I think it’s the opposite. Schwab is trying to build a relationship between the exposition and the following action, comparing Sydney then to Sydney now. Schwab’s habit of always trying to build on her previous sentence instead of switching gears is why many of her paragraphs are so long.
As far as we can tell, the stakes for this dig are whether they get to go home sooner or later. Schwab, the novelty of this situation isn’t going to last forever. You gotta start cultivating tension.
A passing reference in Vicney’s description of home introduces us to a new character, Mitch. I actually don’t mind this. Because Schwab is telling us very little, there’s room to throw in an unfamiliar name without overwhelming readers with too much information. When we see their home, we’ll expect to see Mitch there. However, this reference to Mitch could still be cut to reduce cognitive burden without harming anything.
The word “wasn’t” is used three times in that last paragraph. I might not have noticed, but one is italicized, which calls a lot of attention to it. It’s really easy for word repetition to slip in by accident; a good copy editor will point it out.
Sydney eyed the grave, tightening her fingers on the wooden grip. Victor had already begun to dig.
“What if…,” she said, swallowing, “… what if the other people accidentally wake up?”
The dead could rise around them? Are we finally getting a problem with some tension behind it?
“They won’t,” cooed Victor. “Just focus on this grave. Besides…” He looked up from his work. “Since when are you afraid of bodies?”
“I’m not,” she snapped back, too fast and with all the force of someone used to being the younger sibling. Which she was. Just not Victor’s.
“Look at it this way,” he teased, dumping a pile of dirt onto the grass. “If you do wake them up, they can’t go anywhere. Now dig.”
Nope. Everything’s fine, please ignore the fact that people could be waking up to find themselves trapped in coffins. It’s not important; move along.
I’m surprised how often I see things like this in the manuscripts I edit. A writer will have a perfectly good source of tension, and then they’ll immediately defuse it. Often, it’s because problems are inconvenient for the story’s logistics. Writers have their hands full trying to make story events work without big plot holes. They’re so focused on getting characters from point A to point B that they forget obstacles can also be opportunities.
In this case, Victor is showing off how confident he is in graveyards. It would be awfully mean of Schwab to deflate his ego by making him worry about something. Plus, the protagonists might end up in conflict before they go home! What a nuisance.
At least we know that Sydney has a magical effect that involves raising the dead without her intent. That could certainly be interesting – if it actually happens and causes problems for the characters, and not just for us as we try not to think about dead people forever awake but trapped underground.
Let’s look at the last lines of this short chapter. Will Schwab end with skeletons digging themselves out of their graves? Will she reveal that Victor is a giant who’s been dead all along? Will Vicney add the person they excavate to their miniature collective?
Sydney leaned forward, her short blond hair falling into her eyes, and began to dig. The two worked in the dark, only Victor’s occasional humming and the thud of the shovels filling the air.
They do more digging. Presumably after this, they’ll walk deeper into the graveyard.
That’s disappointing, but there’s still the next chapter. Schwab could finally skip forward to show why they are digging. Or the characters could at least arrive at home and have some cute, heartwarming scenes with Mitch.
Take a moment and guess what happens.
Did you guess that the story jumps ten years into the past and shows Victor hanging out at college? Why not? And don’t give me some excuse about how there’s literally nothing in the story so far to suggest that Victor’s college years are important. Clearly, you need to plug yourself into the Vicney collective… or die.
Schwab spends more than the second chapter in the past. Most of the text in the beginning of Vicious is focused on those boring college scenes, interspersed with flashbacks from a few days ago. The few times Schwab briefly returns to the graveyard, it’s so we can watch Vicney dig yet again. Finally about halfway through the book, Vicney gets to the body they’ve been digging up.
Opening with this kind of flash forward can work, but it has to set up a problem that following chapters will develop. That way those chapters are more enjoyable and not just something readers have to wade through to get back to the good parts. It’s possible Schwab could have done that if she hadn’t been so determined to hide information.
As is, the chapter is running on novelty with a little attachment thrown in. Novelty doesn’t last. It’s great for entertaining readers during setup, but it’s not as effective at keeping readers going. Attachment does help with that quite a bit, but in this case, Sydney isn’t present in the college scenes. That means attachment to her or to the found-family relationship isn’t much help. Schwab needs readers to get attached to Victor, the guy without problems whose motivation is unknown.
The blurb on Amazon reveals that the throughline of this book centers on the struggle between Victor and his college friend Eli. If Schwab wanted to use a flash forward as her opening hook, she should have used a dramatic moment between Victor and Eli. After that, she could have skipped back to their first meeting in college, and readers would have a reason to stay tuned.
Altogether, I’m left with the impression that Schwab spat this out late one night, after she couldn’t sleep because of a mysterious thud, thud, thud under her bed. She was too tired to think about it very hard, but she did succeed at trapping her curse within the haunted passages of a forgotten (by me) tale.
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