The Violent Century is a historical sci fi novel by Israel author Lavie Tidhar. Featuring a wide array of preexisting kudos from the likes of Charles Stross and James Ellroy, this is a volume that will make a reader take note. That said, it is a near-superhero tale, which will make some readers raise an eyebrow, and the overall storytelling is in a style not often used, which might help or harm it depending upon a reader’s tastes.
I will note that this edition sports a very nice introduction by Cory Doctrow in which he discusses the interesting aspect of Jewish identity in historical fiction, and how that reflects back to this book. It’s a nice introduction, all told, though less revealing than it might be, which is for the best.
Page 1 featured a use of “Fogg” with two g’s that had me wondering if it was a typo or actually a full on reference, and sure nough our lead character is Henry Fogg, who conveniently has fog and mist related powers. It’s a cute little touch all told. At its heart this is less a historical superhero tale, and more a supernatural espionage story referencing back to the most common use of superpowered figures in popular culture in much of the world for a certain period of time.
The present tense is a mistake, and the book is hard to read because while Tidhar uses it much better than most, he is still not sufficient to the task of an entire book in this format. Reading it feels wrong, and indeed the number of times a past tense “ed” slips in is hard to deny. The attempt at immediacy that the tense usually implies fails utterly, working better in the present day raming than much of the rest of the book, but even in this seeming an odd choice. In the past it often feels downright sad, like a man writing for the screenplay rather than the page. The only advantage to this format in this narrative is that, combined with the complete lack of notifiers about dialog, serves to keep the reader somewhat uncomfortable in comparison to a more traditionally formatted reading experience. A few britishisms and americanisms may be mixed up, although given that most of the major characters have travelled extensively by the time certain things are said makes this less of a concern, the odd bizarre term for a bartender on page 8 (using barkeep) or the like hardly taking the story apart. That said, it seems an odd thing to include without note in a book that uses a style that seems desperate to be literary. Other authors make this style work much better than Mr. Tidhar does here, although I cannot recall one that uses such subject matter in conjunction with it.
An additional problem comes from the history, in that the text attempts to have it’s story both ways. Fogg works for The Old Man and the british superhumans are clandestine by and large, suggesting a secret history. The Old Man makes note on page 87 that “We nullify each other” in relation to the superhumans, further suggesting some less-than subtle nod to secret history. yet by this point it’s been made clear that the SS has a public superhuman organization with a special uniform, and the armed forces of the USA have superheroes in gaudy costumes who appear on newsreels and participated in D Day. Nevermind keeping stories of actions that happen in some of these segments secret, the idea that this history is meant to simultaneously serve as a secret history and a public alternate history is a little hard to swallow.
This becomes worse when there is the additional implication that a character named Oblivion has a short affair with Alan Turing, and that von Braun makes a large number of rocketpack soldiers for Hitler, both of which, again, raise questions about the effect on history. Both characters presences are interesting, of course, and the use of Turing to help illustrate other character’s sexuality was a very nice touch, and such little moments are greatly appreciated. There is a use of the september 11th attack that uses clever wording on page 229, but it ultimately feels like it is trying to be too cute, and serves more as a reminder of the fact the author is desperately trying to wedge real world in story into a story featuring people who can create fog and nullify matter with a thought. It doesn’t quite gel, and the use of Bin Laden earlier should’ve warned me that was coming, though that was, at least, slightly more well executed. The history is, in other words, a mixed bag. By the same token literary references, like on page 129 when someone is described as ‘like a human torch” are appreciated, although perhaps in such cases a bit too on-the-nose. There is a trial later in the book that marks one of the times the text holds up, reminding of war crimes trials and using the particular writing style to good effect. Chapter 88 and the questioning of a specific individual prove to be one of the high points of the book, and almost worth reading the rest of the text for.
An interesting theme in this volume, and one that isn’t well illustrated in many appearances of early reviews in other editions of the book, comes to national style, the loud public american superheroines vs. the boardroom style of some nations, the quiet ungentlemanly politeness of the british way of using the superpowered, or the unstable way the Russians employ them. On page 232 this is illustrated well, with Fogg even giving an annoyed declaration of “Yanks” to remind the reader of the contrast.
Another comes in questioning which genre one could call this particular volume. It has elements of espionage, scifi, fantasy, and horror in turn, though the latter could be covered with almost any work that deals with Jews and the Nazis. Superhero would seem an option, however a superhero story can range from 1966’s Batman to 1986’s Watchmen, to name two seemingly disparate staples. The style strives for certain marks in the literary, though doesn’t succeed in it’s goal in many cases, and the references slipped in, both obvious and not, bring to mind postmodern and metafictional works.
The cover, while very nice, does leave me wondering if the cover-artist initialyl misread violent century as violet century, and in the process was inspired to use the purple leading to a cover that borders upon bisexual lighting.In any event the art by Sarah Anne Langton was quite intresting, with a possible solution.
The Violent Century is a flawed book, but an interesting one. THe history is clever, the characters seem interesting,a dn while perhaps a shade darker than some tastes would like compelling. That said the style seems poorly chosen, and if the goal was to feel literary, it succeeds only in the same way much literary fiction does, in that it feels like it’s trying and failing at something unnecessary and probably unwise.
The historical fantasy, historical sci fi, and alternate history genres are fascinating ways to look at the world. In this case, one sees a piece that is written by someone who has clearly done his research, and put into place a story that feels interesting, but doesn’t quite..fit right. If someone enjoys the prose, they should enjoy the book a great deal more, and if that clicks with a reader and they enjoy the concept even slightly, I can recommend a read. It’s not an exceptionally long book, and it does what it does in an interesting manner. There are cute historical and pop cultural references, some of which are more obvious than others. The Violent Century is a brilliant narrative in a slightly off-putting package.
(Tachyon Publishing, 2019)