Before her first Harry Potter novel was released, J.K. Rowling wasn’t J.K. at all. Her first name is Joanne, and she has no middle name, but for her byline she settled on J.K. when her publisher suggested that she use initials in place of her given name because male readers are more inclined to read books by men than by women. (Rowling selected “K” in remembrance of her maternal grandmother, Kathleen.) And she published exclusively under her famous byline until earlier this year, when her first detective story, The Cuckoo’s Calling, appeared under a pen name, Robert Galbraith, and a fabricated biography: according to the book’s jacket flap, Robert Galbraith is a former military officer.
Once the truth came to light, Rowling issued a statement in which she expressed regret only that the secret hadn’t lasted longer, explaining that she’d felt liberated by the anonymity: “It was wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.” In closing, she added, “Robert fully intends to keep writing the series, although he will probably continue to turn down personal appearances.”
Meanwhile, Vicious, a fantasy novel for adults, is the debut publication by V.E. Schwab. It is not, however, Schwab’s first book. The Nashville writer is also the author of two novels for young-adult readers, The Near Witch and The Archived, published under the name Victoria Schwab. Unlike Robert Galbraith’s official bio, however, V.E. Schwab’s biography on the darkly androgynous cover of Vicious makes no secret of her authorship of the earlier books. But Schwab’s penchant for conjuring vividly imagined fantasy worlds replete with black magic and strong characters of both sexes—strong enough, in the case of Vicious, to dig up graves and seek mortal revenge—may have set her on course to follow Rowling at least by presenting her book in a less overtly feminine package. The good news for admirers is that Schwab is available for public appearances, as herself, and will launch Vicious at Parnassus Books on September 25.
The protagonist of Vicious is a man named Victor. The narrative cuts back and forth in time between his senior year of college—when he and his best friend Eli, an equally brilliant though more arrogant boy, begin conducting secret experiments in adrenaline that have the shocking consequence of producing unique superpowers—and a decade later, following Victor’s breakout from prison. Condemned for crimes Eli committed, Victor has spent years behind bars, meticulously plotting how to destroy Eli. On the lam, he sets out on a single-minded quest to hunt down his former friend and make him pay for his betrayal.
Simultaneously, Eli has developed an obsession with anyone with superpowers: the so-called ExtraOrdinary people, or “EOs” for short. “Eli blamed himself,” one introspective passage reads. “Victor was right, he’d played God, even as he asked for His help. And God in His mercy and might has saved Eli’s life, but destroyed everything that touched it.” Filled with self-blame for having set these EOs into motion, Eli is determined to destroy the tools that will create more of them.
It appears to be a contest between contrasting masterminds: superhero versus super-villain, both laden with supersized egos. In fact, neither Victor nor Eli is entirely right or wrong. After all, it was curiosity that led them to this desperate crossroads, and not an outsized sense of mischief. The excruciating physical and psychological pain that both men endured in earning their own respective superpowers cost them relationships with the people to whom they were closest, including one another.
One example of an ExtraOrdinary being is Sydney Clarke, a twelve-year-old girl Victor rescues in the first chapter. Shortly after his prison break, he finds her on the side of the road, bleeding from a gunshot wound inflicted by Eli. Quickly filling the role of Victor’s sidekick, Sydney, Schwab writes, “had always been on the short side, but it certainly didn’t help that she had barely grown an inch since the day she died.” (Sydney’s superpower is the ability to bring back the dead.) Sydney’s older sister, Serena, works for Eli, and the complexity of the sisters’s fractured relationship adds another layer of intrigue and suspense to the outcome of this fantastical rivalry.
It’s clear from the outset that not everyone involved in the conflict will make it out alive. What that means, especially in light of superpowers like Sydney’s, is a wild ride rife with cliffhangers. In Schwab’s world, the lines between death and life, good and evil, male and female, are blurred. And victory is bittersweet.
V.E. Schwab will discuss Vicious at Parnassus Books in Nashville on September 25, 2013, at 6:30 p.m.