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.