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Friday, November 15, 2019

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)

Order The Violent Century over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Lavie Tidhar was raised on a kibbutz in Israel. He has traveled extensively since he was a teenager, living in South Africa, the UK, Laos, and the small island nation of Vanuatu.

Tidhar began publishing with a poetry collection in Hebrew in 1998, but soon moved to fiction, becoming a prolific author of short stories early in the 21st century.

He lives with his wife in London

FORMAT/INFO: The Violent Century is 332 pages long. The book was originally published in 2014. Tachyon reprinted it in 2019. Cover art by Sarah Anne Langton.

OVERVIEW: The Violent Century defies easy categorization. It’s as much a romance as a spy novel or a murder mystery. It’s also a memoir of a meaningful friendship. It revolves around deeply flawed Übermenschen (superheroes). So… let’s call it an alt-historical superhero thriller with romance and murder mystery?

Yeah, that fits. More or less.  


What makes a hero? A hero stands up to injustice. A hero triumphs over odds. A hero fights pirates, sails a raft down a volatile waterway, a hero is a boy and a boy is a hero, good triumphing over bad.

Every Superhuman has an origin story, telling how they gained their powers and decided to fight crime or become criminals. You’ll find nothing so obvious in The Violent Century. German scientist, Vomacht, created a machine that sent a probability wave of changes across the entire world. Random people gained unusual abilities and superpowers. 

British Henry Fogg, for example, can control fog. It doesn’t sound impressive, but you should never underestimate him. British intelligence services found his powers interesting enough to recruit and train him on a Farm. As a British agent, Fogg observes and experiences crucial parts of WWII. His loyalties are tested when he meets a beautiful and superpowered woman. 

A word of caution here. The story isn’t complicated, but the writing style is. The narrative moves forward and backward through time using rapid scene shifts. It opens with Oblivion delivering a message to Fogg - The Old Man wants to speak with him about what happened in 1946. Immediately after this, the story jumps to the mid-1930s and from there to the 1940s and further along the way.
Trinity College, Cambridge. The Rolls comes to a stop. A sea of grass. Students in groups, sitting in the sun. Samuel comes around and opens the passenger door, The Old Man climbs out. Stretches. Sun on his face.
Tidhar’s prose is minimalist, composed of short and sharp sentences with almost no exposition. His fractured writing style makes it rather difficult to read in the beginning and requires a bit of trust from the reader. Tidhar knows what he’s doing and once you get used to his writing, you’ll appreciate how powerful it can be. 

I think Tidhar played with the powers attributed to the Übermenschen. Not only are they exaggerated, but they also express, mockingly, their national identities (Fogg, a Londoner, controls Fog; Nazis are evil incarnated, Soviets tragic, Americans flashy and arrogant). Somehow, though, they give each historical era a distinctive feel and remain believably human.

The Violent Century is both demanding and rewarding. It won't appeal to everyone and I understand why some readers will put it aside because of time jumps and fractured writing style. I've almost done it myself; luckily I've persevered. If you give it a chance, you may discover it's one of the rare books that stay with the reader long after they finish the last page.


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