When Villains Rise Review: The Monster is the System

By Christina Ladd on

About Christina Ladd

One of the Books & Comics editors at Geekly. She/her. Sailor Rainbow. Glitter and spite and everything bright.


When you deal with bad people, sometimes there are no good choices. And if you keep dealing with them, well, you might just find it’s no longer about bad choices, but the choice to be bad. To be monstrous.

Monstrousness has always been the heart of this trilogy, and the question of what makes a monster is all the more pertinent in When Villains Rise. Is it birth, nothing more than a genetic quirk that somehow plunks people to one side or the other of a moral black and white? Is it upbringing? The nature vs. nurture question is old, and Schaeffer doesn’t debate it so much as explode it entirely. What if your nature and your nurture were both on the wrong side of the moral line—would you then have to judge yourself by degrees, make morality a spectrum? And who would this morality be for—for yourself? For society? Whose society? Whose laws do you abide by when your nature, your existence, is a crime?

In this final volume, it’s not people Schaeffer is examining but whole institutions. We know that the INHUP, the Inhuman Police, are corrupt. And now we begin to see how their corruption interplays with politics, with the cycles of profit and exploitation on the black market, and with the media perception of supernatural beings, aka “inhumans.”

If the world doesn’t let you be human, then whose fault is it, exactly, when you act according to their expectations? The whole trilogy has been wrestling with this question as well, and it comes to some very interesting conclusions through Nina and Kovit, our beleaguered duo whom we last saw having a heart-to-heart as two prisoners awaited torture in other rooms.

Ah, sweet murder-babies. It’s good to see you again.

Nina and Kovit have more to worry about in this book than vengeance. Their survival is now interlinked with their fellow inhumans, and with the system that judges whether they’re safe or dangerous—aka, whether they can be killed on sight without consequences. (Let that one sink in for a second.) The INHUP is behind the policies, but it’s the public that effectively “enforces” them, supporting and even participating in government-sanctioned killing. The media is a constant threat across all three books, not always immanent but always at least in the back of everyone’s minds. Nita has always thought privacy was safety, but in When Villains Rise, she realizes she can take control of her narrative. And she’s going to do so as thoroughly as she knows how: by getting to the roots of the INHUP and all their secrets.

In this battle of information, Nita and Kovit’s self-knowledge isn’t trivial. What they know of each other, and how they understand their relationships, matters on a large scale. Rarely do I see someone so skillfully blend the larger themes and issues of the book’s plot into the intimate and interpersonal issues that the characters are struggling with.

I don’t know if this book will resonate with everyone who has experienced abuse, but it certainly resonated with me. Each of the teen characters has a parent or parental figure who treats or treated them with extreme violence and manipulation. Kovit, Nita, and Fabricio each emerged from uniquely bad situations, but they share a common understanding of the intense love and intense fear that accompanies long-term abuse. The intense feeling of monstrousness: both of the perpetrator and of yourself as you struggle to disentangle yourself from what they call “love.”

Learning to recognize abuse isn’t easy. It only really happens when there’s something to contrast it with, something that makes you realize that it isn’t normal. And once you do, it’s not as if feelings and relationships stop. I was particularly moved by Kovit’s mourning for his “mentor,” the man who forced him into torturing others. Henry was evil in every way imaginable, and yet he provided the only structure and support Kovit received for much of his life. Reconciling—or at least encompassing—those many contradictory feelings is a difficult process, and Schaeffer gives us a window on it without any tint of judgement.  

She similarly gives us a window into Nita’s relationships with her parents, only in this case, Nita is looking at her own life alongside us. Nita has never fully understood the strangeness and terror of her upbringing, but as she fights to save Kovit and understand his past, she’s forced to reckon with her own, too. Schaeffer ties it into the larger issues with the INHUP very nicely, making for a very emotionally charged mystery, and a very thoughtful conclusion.

Although it fortunately never goes the trite route with “the monsters were the humans all along,” there is an important dimension of the book that asks how we can have compassion for people who do monstrous things, and what boundaries can (or should) still exist. This is a complex, real-world compassion that can be powerful, but maybe isn’t so nice. This whole book is not nice. It does not end with the tearful redemption of every evil deed in a blindingly bright act of self-sacrifice and romantic love. It takes the much more difficult tack of forcing characters to live with their remorse, accept their guilt, and do something about it. That’s not as neat and pretty, but it’s honest, and it also leaves room for real, meaningful relationships.

It’s nice to see some Asexual representation and exploration. Nita and Kovit may have a very unusual bond, but Schaeffer makes clear that being Ace is completely normal (perhaps the most normal thing about either of them). Both characters’ ability to be thoughtful and honest about their emotional and physical desires is incredibly sweet.

I especially adore how Nita still finds a way to grow and develop her relationships, discover her sexuality, and develop herself as a person—one who knows how to ask for help! and makes collaborative, not unilateral, decisions!—while also being increasingly ruthless and murderous. Pushed a little further, it would be hilarious YA satire. As it is, When Villains Rise still plays it straight. We get to take Nita’s progress and also her violence seriously, which I think is the right call. 2020 isn’t really the time to be treating extreme violence as a laugh, but it’s definitely the right time to think about the political and psychological ramifications of violence. How Nita, Kovit, and others cope with violence—either directed against them or directed by them—is far more interesting than whether they participate.

Schaeffer walks that line to the very end, never falling. The tightrope metaphor breaks down a bit, though, when you think about how many, many lines she’s walking. It’s more like she’s skipping from tightrope to tightrope, discussing wealth and power and the political ramifications of unchecked violence, and doing so through characters marked by complex trauma. It’s a virtuoso performance.

I’m sorry to say goodbye to these characters, but this really was a perfect place to end the trilogy. I’m hopeful that this isn’t goodbye to this strange, scary parallel world. It’s a great setting, and there’s a lot of incredible potential for more stories. But regardless, I know I’m not saying goodbye to Rebecca Schaeffer. Her dark, insightful work has a proud place on my shelves, and I look forward to when I can add more of her books to my collection.

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