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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 19 January 2014
I had to think about this book for a while before writing the review, just to mull it all over. This is an absolutely fantastic book, I had no doubt about that; but how to review and explain it to a new reader?

What do Fogg and Oblivion have in common? Not fog and oblivion; but Fogg and Oblivion. They are both `changed'; members of the Bureau, those shadowy observers who have been affected by the change generated by Vomacht's machine, enrolled in the team led by the Old Man. Found and trained in the lead up to the Second World War, a large part of this story takes place during that war; the horrors on the Eastern Front, in the depths of Germany, in Paris, across Europe and beyond. But the end of the War is just the beginning. Because for the changed, the War never ends.

The author has written comics and screenplays as well as novels, and that's what this novel `sounds' like, if I can put it like that. Actually it's a bit like watching a movie; scenes change, we see people and actions and they scroll before us. Indeed the novel shifts between scenes; 164 of them in all. At first, the method of narrative is short, blocky with no speech marks around speech. It took me a few pages of this to get it straightened out in my head, but then it just seemed to flow, like it was visual, unfolding into the scenes without the need for such things. Let me give you an example:

Oblivion nods. As though he understood more than the words. Your smokescreen? he says, softly.
- It's just habit, Fogg says.
Oblivion nods. I remember.
- Old tradecraft, Fogg says. Sounds sheepish.

I absolutely loved this book; it was clever, ambitious, stunningly original; a brilliantly clever weave of fact and `maybe' fact/fiction - who knows for sure? But it's breathtakingly well constructed, and totally enthralling. I was drawn into it and held enthralled in the story till the last page, sorry when it ended. This would have to be one of the top 10 best novels I've read in the last twelve months.
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The first thing to address reviewing this book - the unavoidable, obvious, distinctive thing - is the style. When I was 30 or 40 pages in, I nearly gave up with it. The way it's written is so distinctive, so odd. No speech marks. Present tense. Laconic. like this:

The Old Man says, Where is the boy?
- He's waiting, Deutsch says.
- Then let's pick up the pace, shall we?

Hovering over all is an unseen "we". We see this or hear that. "We" is a jaded, slightly cynical voice. Seen it all, or most of it. Heard nearly as much. It's almost the voice of an omnipotent narrator, but not quite. "We" sometimes shrugs, not totally sure about events, but in charge, all the same.

It was all madly annoying to me, at first. But I carried on, and I'm glad I did, because fairly soon, everything clicked and I wasn't enjoying the book despite the style, the voice, but through the style and voice. There's something about it that makes the whole span of the story - with all its hops back and to, from pre war England to the Eastern Front, to Russia, to various murky cold war corners, to a shadowy secret Bureau in the present day - all present at once. It's like a non-visual comic book, perhaps, or maybe that's too pretentious. Whatever, it makes this story.

And what a story it is. Wrapped round the perhaps hoary conventions of a Smiley-esque espionage plot - the faithful servant not allowed to depart in peace, but called back by the Old Man for one final debrief - we have a story of love, of rivalry, but above all of strangeness. Fogg - the hero, if the book has one: it's a moot point - is one of the "changed" - superheroes, created by a freak event in 1932. Throughout the world, a quantum wave has produced monsters, men and women with bizarre abilities: to wind back time, summon up ice and snow, or just make things disappear. Fighting on all sides during the Second World war and in those murky corners after, they struggle to make sense of what they are. Not ageing, but growing weary, they look back to the event that made them and wonder how it began.

The concept gives Tidhar scope to range all over the place, leaping decades in a single bound to place some vignette in 1946 Berlin of at the heart of darkness in Vietnam, before jumping back - or forward again, his narrative only fixed in that it keeps returning to that last debrief, to Scheesturm and to Sommertag.

This is so much better than the last book I read by Tidhar (The Bookman. It may not be to everyone's taste, but if you're wavering and thinking of giving up, please just do keep going.

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on 21 April 2014
At first this book was a real struggle, i lost count of the number of times I nearly put it down in the first 30 pages. The constant time jumping of the narrative and the unorthodox punctuation, along with his writing style really didn't click with me at all.

But then, without really realising it it drew me in. A bit like a black and white film (or movie for you Americans!) the points which annoyed me at first simply faded, no longer relevant. The story drew me in, the characters were great - the relationship between Fog and Oblivion is subtle and believable.

Set WWII and its aftermath, it provides a brilliant backdrop to which the individual stories of the characters play out. Obviously things have had to be changed to allow inclusion of these 'super men', but wherever possible Lavie Tidhar has preserved the real life characters and events that happened, and he has done it very well indeed.

If you can get past the initial difference of the writing (and please do) sit down in a quiet corner and enjoy this book. I am glad I did.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 November 2013
**3.5 stars simply for concept and story**

I didnt finish this one, got halfway then realised I was just not with it - The writing style just didnt click with me. HOWEVER the story concept is terrific, and I liked the characters. But the purely descriptive prose, with even the speech being written as description, as an example :


The other says, there's a girl in there, she can make fire. Clicks his fingers. Says, Like that. Must be handy Fogg says. The other shrugs. Takes a drag. Blows out smoke. Fogg,idly,makes it into tiny airships that burst apart. Girl in here she can spit at stuff. Break it. Like she's firing bullets, the other says around the cigarette.

End Quote

just did not click with my reading brain. Do not let this put you off if you like the sound of the tale however - this is a purely subjective thing for me.. the next reader will adore it. There is nothing actually "wrong" with this book just was not for me.

Happy Reading Folks!
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on 6 November 2013
Where do heroes come from? How are friendships made? What makes us human? These are the questions that Lavie Tidhar grapples with, in this story of friendship writ large upon a canvas that stretches from the 1930s to the present day, in a slightly alternate world where superheroes exists, but heroics mean different things to different people. Choices made in the second world war resonate down through a series of brilliantly detailed cold war scenes, ultimately wrestling with the idea of the self. This is a big, ambitious book that manages to deliver. Expect nominations, awards, and Tidharian grumbling speeches.
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on 9 April 2015
Brilliant take on the superhero genre and much more besides, worthwhile for fans across the spectrum really, not just SFF.

It's got the same hypnagogic style as Osama and the writing is every bit as good, but there's more plot here and one that stretches through the decades of the last violent century. We jump back and forward, move between wars and continents, but there's a deft hand at the wheel keeping everything on track and in balance and Fogg's story unfolds.

Given I'm not the greatest fan of the superhero genre, this worked very well for me because it's not an action-heavy powers-fest - but I doubt hardcore fans would have any complaint at this clever handling. This should appeal across the spectrum, from serious literary to serious geek, and it's good enough to hold it's head high wherever it's placed.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 November 2013
With 2014 just around the corner, one would hardly want to forget that the 20th century was a time of conflict for so much of the world. In The Violent Century, Lavie Tidhar takes a breath and attempts to unravel the purpose of these decades of war, as surely there must be a reason. Mankind could not have sunk so low that his mission would be the destruction of so much life and hope. Throughout it all, there must still be heroes, putting the world back together again.

In 1932 a bubble of silence surrounded the world, changing every person who walked the Earth. But whereas some barely noticed the moment and carried on with life regardless, just a few were aware of the change and in that moment everlasting took on a superpower grabbed from nature. Our principal characters Fogg and Oblivion were among those affected. In a scenario purposefully reminiscent of familiar comic books, they are taken into care by the Old Man, removed to a school to learn the use of that power under men such as Alan Turing, and then released into the world as some kind of secret agents missioned with a search for heroes. But while The Violet Century takes us through decades of war, beginning with the battles and proscriptions of the Second World War and continuing outwards and beyond, it becomes clear that war has ripped through much more than ordinary lives. Heroes, too, must fight for survival and freedom and supremacy. All the while, though, Fogg searches for the beginning to it all, to the man who created the bubble, and to the girl who carries sunshine with her wherever she goes.

The Violent Century is one of the most extraordinary reads I've had this year. It's unlike anything other novel I've read. While it hovers around fantasy and jumps through history, above all else it tells the story of a couple of men, Fogg and Oblivion, who have been given a task they never wanted. They have been thrown out of normal existence and yet still experience feelings towards each other - there is a deeply moving love here - while dealing with sights nobody should have to see. Turning a tale about superheroes upside down, The Violent Century takes an ingenious sideways look at themes that scarred the last century and this. Superheroes are trapped in specimen jars while Jewish twins are experimented on in Auschwitz. Superheroes suffer alongside men and women and children on the Russian front, on the Normandy beaches, or in the firestorms of Vietnam or in the formation of Israel. This is a novel that tells the story of the century by expressing its outrages through emotions run wild, given bodily form, and endowed with rage.

I found The Violent Century a very difficult novel to put down even though there were sections that I found hard to read. Despite this, there were moments with a lighter touch and the whole book is peopled by the most wonderful and imaginative creations. Extracts from newspapers, references to comic books and to real people add another dimension and give an air of reality to a world that is unlike any I've read about before. But aside from this, the novel is also a mystery story. What is it that Fogg and Oblivion are trying to do? What does the Old Man want? And who was the creator of the transforming bubble? There are lots of questions raised through the story, just as we move through so many environments and places, some more fantastical than others. We are on a hunt.

The novel is told through brief chapters that jump between characters and move fluidly between periods. You need to keep your wits about you. Reminiscences occur within reminiscences. Fogg and Oblivion are not necessarily reliable witnesses to history. Events and people move around us, backwards and forwards through the years. Names come and go. It can be difficult to keep track of them and it can lead to moments of confusion and frustration, at least for this reader. Also, this book might be brief but it is most certainly not light. Neither is it forgettable.

But despite this being a tale of war and superheroes and the most evil of villains, The Violent Century felt to me primarily like an account of the best and worst of humanity trying to cope with the most difficult of events. What is a hero? Sometimes it can be impossible to tell but even during the very worst of times they can be found. I'm grateful for the review copy.
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Osama won Lavie Tidhar the World Fantasy Award. It feathers reality with fantasy, and though occasionally confusing it delivers a wonderful meditation on violence and terrorism in modern society. In many ways The Violent Century carries on in the same vein. Whilst more accessible than Osama, this book too has an unusual structure. Its scope is wider, focusing specifically on World War Two, but more generally on war as a phenomenon. At its heart is a simple question. What makes a hero?

Once again Tidhar's premise is elegant and compelling. In the 1930s a quantum experiment carried out in Nazi Germany imbued a small percentage of humanity with superpowers. The resulting novel is a string of vignettes of pivotal moments of World War Two, reimagined with superheroes or Übermenschen.

The central narrative, if not weak, is at least diaphanous. The structure of the novel is haphazard, broken down into several sections which are divided further into lots of small chapters. After a brief present day prologue, the narrative returns to before the war, resting on Fogg and Oblivion, two new recruits in the British government's shadowy 'Retirement Bureau.' From then on each section roughly follows on chronologically from the previous one. Within each however, the timeline jumps back and forth, returning often to a present day interrogation of Fogg, by the enigmatic head of the Bureau, 'Old Man'.

This is not a traditional superhero story. The presence of Übermenschen on both sides gives the tale balance, and an equilibrium that means the major events of this alternate history play out much as the did in reality. (I wasn't completely convinced by this. I feel the mere presence of super-humans in the war would greatly have altered its course. Much like the effect of the invention of the machine gun on the cavalry charge. But no matter. This is not what the novel is about.)

The Übermenschen were one moment in time creations. The result of a single experiment, at a fixed point. Superheroes created en masse. All ages affected, all nationalities, all walks of life. This gives rise to that staple of all superhero fiction, and often the most interesting part, the genesis story. At the risk of denigrating Tidhar's work I found it reminiscent of the opening chapters of the TV series 'Heroes' where we meet the characters and learn their powers (ie the bit where it was good). Here Tidhar's creativity is all to the fore, and his melding of new concepts and twisting of old tropes is masterly.

At the heart of the novel is the concept of heroism. The traditional comic book world is black and white. Heroes and villains; good vs evil. And so it is with broad stroke depictions of World War Two. Today, more so than ever, society's view of our fighting forces is predominantly that they are all heroes, almost regardless of what they may actually be fighting for.

In truth, war sees heroes and villains abound on both sides, also the indifferent, the unlucky and the in the right place at the right time. What effect does having a super power have on this? As we all know, 'With great power comes great responsibility', but how true is that observation?

Placing superheroes in World War Two is not a new concept, but this is the first I've read something that analyses exactly what it might mean. Is it possible to hold yourselves as the master race, when the other side has a man who can will things out of existence? Tidhar poses some interesting questions, such as, whether a beneficial result gained from a Nazi experiment can ever be a good thing. Were all monsters created equal, or were some (the rocket scientists) more equal than others? He answers some but leaves others hanging.

Stylistically some might consider the novel a challenge. You have to have some chutzpah to open a chapter with 'The wheels on the bus go round and round.' but Tidhar pulls off this type of literary quirk time and again. There are countless references to his source material, including an opium filled self-referential homage to the genre, which I loved, but others may find passée. The point of view is unusual, with the more than the occasional insertion from an omnipotent narrator, to us, the reader. This sort of device is often irritating, but I felt it suited the espionage nature of the novel. Webs within webs; who is controlling who?

As well as being a superhero story, The Violent Century is also a spy thriller. For reasons explained in the novel, the British superheroes use cloak and dagger, leaving the brash theatrics to the Americans. The Brits are spies with special powers. Fogg, unsurprisingly fits the bill perfectly for this wartime skulduggery. This final dimension to the book is what gives it its solidity, adding that final coda of modern superhero stories, and the real post 9/11 world - Who watches the Watchmen?

Tidhar teases us with what Fogg and Oblivion are trying to find, why Fogg dropped off the radar, and why, decades later, the Old Man has called him in and reopened old wounds. The answer is surprising and surprisingly tender. Like a shape in the fog, suddenly revealed, the story that you thought was about one thing, turns out to be about something else altogether. Literary sleight of hand this accomplished can only be applauded.
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on 30 October 2013
What makes a man? What makes a hero? Both are questions often asked by different characters throughout Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century. In some ways these are the central questions to the narrative, but neither question is answered in a definitive fashion. The reader is left to formulate her own answer. Tidhar's story is set over the course of the twentieth century, whose violent years gave rise to many heroes, both the comic book kind and those of flesh and blood The narrative shows us these comic book heroes made flesh though an accident with the machine created by the German scientist Dr Vomacht, in an alternate reality that is amazingly detailed in its historical facts and just 'off' enough to feel rather alien at times. Its mood is noir and slowly moves from moody black and white to the grimy over-saturated colours of the sixties on to a still gritty, but sharply-defined present.

Heroism is at the core of the story. All of the Changed are regarded as superheroes, though only the American Changed are designated as such. The others are called Changed or Übermenschen, a term whose connotations - especially given the book's mainly WWII setting - left me uncomfortable and wondering at the ultimate goal for Dr Vomacht's machine. Vomacht's ultimate motivation, beyond studying life, never becomes clear and it's never clear what his machine was actually meant to do. But while they are all shown as Heroes, be they superheroes, Changed or Übermensch, I found the truly heroic moments were found in those brief spells where their humanity shone through. Tank's interposing himself between Oblivion and Fogg and the Nazi's, with a last exhortation to get to safety, Mr Blur's last sweet smile before running off, so Fogg could make his retreat. Kerach's self-sacrifice to avenge his comrades and not co-incidentally let Oblivion and Fogg get away is another good example. It's these glimpses of humanity and the strong show of fellow feeling between the agents of the Bureau of Superannuated Affairs, especially between Fogg and Oblivion, which make the characters come alive and shine.

The central relationships of the narrative are those between Fogg and Oblivion and Fogg and Sommertag. Fogg and Oblivion are partners and best friends, though Oblivion is gay - or at least bisexual - and there are hints here and there that the relationship at times had gone further than friendship, though this is never explicitly confirmed and might even just be unrequited desires on Oblivion's side or even this reader's faulty interpretation. Sommertag is the unexpected love of Fogg's existence and it's her relationship with Fogg that creates most of the tension in Fogg's life - between him and Oblivion and him and his service to King and Country. While the instant rapport between Fogg and Sommertag seemed somewhat forced, I liked seeing what she loosened in the restrained Fogg. But to me the most interesting relationship was between Fogg and Oblivion. The ending of the book is heart-breaking and made me think that no matter how long and well we know another, we'll never know their entire self.

Stylistically The Violent Century is very strong and quite interesting. Tidhar chooses to tell his story in a great many short chapters, the final tally is 164 and these chapters often switch between time periods and not always the time period stated at the start of the books the narrative is divided into. It weaves an intricate tapestry of motives, memories, history, and world building. Tidhar also doesn't use quotation marks in his dialogues, which took me a while to get used to--it's funny to realise how accustomed we are to the common use of punctuation and how disorienting leaving just one element out. On the whole the stylistics are fabulous, though at times it made for having to reread passages several times before they make sense.

The Violent Century was my first long-form encounter with Lavie Tidhar and hopefully it won't be my last. I was very impressed by this war torn superhero narrative, which touches upon sensitive topics such as the Holocaust, the Eichmann trial, World War II atrocities, but also on less well-known wars such as the Laotian Civil War and US involvement therein and ever holds up a mirror asking us: "What makes a man?" A story that sings around for a bit and got stuck in my head, The Violent Century is a strong contender for my top ten this year.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.
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on 31 January 2015
A sprawling, sweeping spy super powers story about at its heart the greatest power man has: love. Another triumph by Lavie Tidhar.
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