(2013) Lavie Tidhar, Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99, hrdbk, 341pp, ISBN 978-1-444-76287-7
Okay, cards on the table, I am a Lavie Tidhar fan. I loved the 'Bookman' trilogy and the wonderful and World Fantasy award-winning Osama where a private detective is investigating pulp writer Mike Longshott who wrote about a fictional terrorist called 'Osama', and some of his other books, like the lesser-known works that have appeared from PS Publishing, but I am also a huge comics fan, and have been reading comics since a boy and the outset of the great Marvel revival of the early 1960s, with titles often created by Stan (the Man) Lee and Jack (King) Kirby, maybe with Steve Ditko also on board have become the huge box-office behemoths such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men, Iron Man, etc., etc., that have dominated the big screen for the last few years. Back in the day Marvel used to have the words 'Pop Art' on their covers trying to make a connection with the works of Warhol and Lichtenstein, but since then there have been more serious, introspective works appearing as limited run comic series or graphic novels examining the role of the hero and the superhero and their place in society. These have mainly (and possibly I am being a bit unfair here) come from the DC Comics stable, led by writers like Alan Moore, or Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison, or Mark Morris. Moore's Watchmen is an obvious example, but there have been others from comic publishers out with the 'big two' such as Dark Horse Comics with the 'Marshal Law' series by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill, even recently DC's Vertigo imprint has produced The Royals set during World War 2 where members of the British Royal Family (and royal families throughout the world) have super-powers.
In Tidhar's novel it is now, the present, and two men are meeting at the pub called The Hole in the Wall, one is known as Oblivion, the other is known as Fogg. They used to be best friends, but that was then, and this is now, and Fogg is being taken to see the Old Man who runs the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs or the Retirement Service, because answers must be given, and secrets revealed, and they will be, at the Farm. The Old Man needs to speak to Fogg about all of his previous missions, particularly during the second world war and since then, in wars and hot spots, and shadowy places all over the world, because the Schneesturm, the Nazi superheroes of old are back, and back in the day they were created by Dr. Vomacht who inadvertently created all of the other heroes in other countries because of his probability wave that swept around the world and created heroes, or villains depending on your viewpoint or which country you come from and which cause these beings are fighting for.
All of this is to say that if you are a comics fan - and yes, like in the Marvel movies(even the futuristic Guardians of the Galaxy), Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance in this book, and there are references to a superman who doesn't save the day, particularly on 9-11, as well as nods to the myriad methods as to why humans become superhuman in their origin stories – then the events of The Violent Century are not particularly new, or original, because comic writers have been mining this introspective seam for a couple of decades now. Kim Newman wrote a story called 'Ubermensc' that appeared in New Worlds back in 1991 that could have easily featured in The Violent Century, but what elevates this beyond the other superhero books that are around today, be they romantic dalliances between hero and human, or straight-forward adventures with capes or cowls worn by sub-Superman or Batman-like heroes set in vast mega-cities, is the level of world-building, and Tidhar's writing style that sucks the readers into the story with his use of tenses and the 'we' word and way the narrative fizzes along and almost tries emulate a comic-book panel layout and speech bubbles with his short, terse statements and unusual handling of dialogue (unusual here, but not an uncommon sight in the works of say, Joyce Carol Oates or James Kelman, even Zadie Smith, among others). I wince at picking up a book that only has 14 chapters, but I love one that divides these into 164 sections, even if they are not in chronological order. Recommended.
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